Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Considering Quebec’s Turnout

I do not pretend to understand Quebec’s political culture. From the outside it seems a very lively and dynamic political scene with big issues and stark contrasts. There is something else in Quebec that stood out and that is the incredible turnout in the last two provincial elections.

In 2012 turnout at the provincial level 74.6%, and last night it was again in the 70% range. Participation in Quebec’s elections seems dramatically higher than elsewhere in the country. From my own experience I cannot help but contrast the 75% in 2012 to Ontario’s 49% in 2011. I thought I might spend some time reflecting why Quebec’s engagement is so much more profound than our own.

No province or city holds elections with more at stake than the province of Quebec. The province’s national assembly not only must wrestle with issues of social policy, such as education and healthcare, like its sister provinces, but the fate of its people within Canada. The sovereignty debate is not always front and centre, but it is the foundational principle of one of the two leading party’s constitution. This tension and on-going debate provides a strong incentive for all of Quebec’s citizens to participate.

Criticize the Parti Quebecois for their xenophobic, racist and exclusionary ideas but you cannot say they did not set out a clear difference in policy from their competitors. Compared to the rather tepid, policy-less elections of recent memory in Ontario there were big ideas on the table with passionate detractors and defenders. It is fair to say that the Quebec that would move forward from a Marois majority would be different from the one that will develop under Couillard.

The political diversity is not merely represented by the PQ and Liberals, the CAQ and Quebec Soilidaire, along with other minor parties, offer significant choices in vision for Quebec. This is represented in both personality and policy. Add in a civil society with an activist public, unions, active press and a host of other factors it begins to seem quite understandable why turnout in Quebec is so much higher than elsewhere in the country.

Sadly the lessons of why Quebec’s turnout may be more robust is not terribly applicable to the case of Ontario. The fight in Ontario is over much narrower ground and the division between political parties much smaller. The Charter of Values would be laughed out in Ontario and there is no “nation” of Ontario. These are generally positive things, but lower stakes means that Ontarians naturally have less incentive to participate. The consequence or risk of a disastrous outcome is far smaller.

Still it is hard to look at Quebec’s political culture of activism, passion and citizen/voter engagement and not be a little jealous.

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