Polls throughout this election period have shown a virtual tie between the Liberals and Conservatives. The trend line for both parties has been descending in the past couple of weeks, stabilizing at around 32 per cent each, with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois gaining.
Most political commentators, especially in Ontario and the West, have been speculating about a Liberal/NDP coalition. Few, however, have envisioned another possibility, that of a Conservative/Bloc coalition.
At the outset, let’s clarify: a "coalition" means active participation in government by the minority party. This is not likely, and has rarely occurred in Canada. However, it is possible for an "agreement" to be concluded between a party with a large number of seats and a second party with fewer seats to ensure the government’s survival in key House of Commons votes.
This occurred in 1972, when Pierre Trudeau reached an accord with the NDP under David Lewis. This turned out to be a disaster for the NDP, which lost half its seats in the 1974 election, and a triumph for Trudeau. It did lead, however, to adoption of much progressive legislation.
So: if the Conservatives this time around won a large number of seats (not necessarily the most), could they form a "coalition" with another party? Of course this is possible, despite Andrew Scheer’s recent posturing on the issue. Current polling data, especially Eric Grenier’s polling for the CBC, indicate that Conservative and Bloc seat counts combined could amount to around 170 seats, enough for a majority in the House of Commons.
We are in uncharted territory here. Let us assume that both the Conservatives and the Bloc are opportunistic, in the sense that they both want power, whatever their respective motives. The Bloc then becomes a natural ally to the Conservatives.
A bit of context is necessary to explain why. Most sovereigntists in Quebec detest the Liberals with a passion, especially the Trudeaus, starting with Trudeau père and his despised Charter of Rights and Freedoms adopted in 1982. The Bloc is a sovereigntist party, and it detests Trudeau fils with the same passion. Its gains will be in the rural, francophone regions of Quebec. The Liberals will win their seats in the Montreal region, as they usually do.
The Bloc’s current leader, Yves-François Blanchet, was a clear winner in the two French-language debates, both aimed at Quebec. He was forceful, articulate and, most of all for Quebecers, a master of the French language. Trudeau, as usual, came in a poor second on this score.
Quebec is known for its massive swings in public opinion at election time, contrary to the rest of Canada. One only has to recall the brief and rapid swing to the NDP in Quebec in the 2011 election, when Quebecers moved en masse to Jack Layton, le bon Jack, contributing to the NDP’s best showing ever in the House of Commons with 103 seats. It was his misfortune that this coincided with Stephen Harper’s first and only majority government, which meant Layton had very little effect on actual legislation.
In this election, the trend in Quebec is moving toward the Bloc and it may shift dramatically on election night. Sociologically, last weekend many thousands of francophone Montrealers drove back to their roots, to the villages and towns where they came from decades ago, for Thanksgiving.
Around the kitchen table, they shared their opinions about the debates, about Quebec’s future and about how to leverage power in Ottawa. And we can easily imagine that they talked glowingly about Blanchet’s performance in the debates, about his position on Bill 21, the quality of his spoken French and his debating skills.
For his part, Andrew Scheer has hewed ideologically to the traditional Conservative line of a smaller federal government powers and to respecting areas of provincial jurisdiction, music to the ears of the Bloc. Most notably, Scheer, alone among leaders of the major parties, has said that he would not consider going to the Supreme Court over Bill 21 in Quebec, the law that prohibits the wearing of religious symbols such as the hijab by certain civil servants, such as teachers.
Beyond these areas, what could we expect from a Conservative/Bloc coalition? One thing is certain: in the scenario described above, the Bloc would serve as a check on the Conservative party’s worst authoritarian tendencies, even though we can expect that most of Harper’s operatives would still be dominant in a Scheer administration.
Since the Bloc is ideologically left of centre, one can also expect that any agreement with the Conservatives would lead to a softening of its hard-right positions on many issues.
Raymond Hébert is professor emeritus at the Université de Saint-Boniface.