How to sell conservatism in Quebec

Published on May 11, 2016

I made a presentation today on the theme of how to sell conservative ideas in Quebec at the annual conference of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy in Ottawa. Here is the original version of my presentation. -- 12 March 2010


How to sell conservatism in Quebec
Maxime Bernier, MP for Beauce
Manning Networking Conference 2010
Ottawa, March 12, 2010


Good afternoon,

Thank you Michel for this very kind introduction. I would also like to thank Preston Manning for inviting me to this conference. Mr. Manning has done tremendous work to advance conservative ideas in this country. And this event is the perfect place for the topic I am about to discuss.

I would like to talk to you today about how to sell conservatism in Quebec. I’m happy to see so many people in this room who haven’t given up on that topic! It’s unfortunate, but many conservatives outside of Quebec seem to believe that conservatism in my home province is a lost cause. For them, all Quebecers are left-wingers and love big government. And it is hopeless to expect anything to come out of it.

If that were true, I guess I would not be here today. I won my riding with the largest majority of any candidate in Quebec in the last two elections. And everyone knows I’m a conservative!

I will grant you that Quebec has its peculiarities. One of these is of course the separatist versus federalist debate, which has tended to dominate all other issues for many decades now.

Another one is that Quebec intellectuals – the writers, artists, academics, journalists – have been more uniformly left-wing than in other societies since the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. It’s been slowly changing in the past few years. But for a long time, it was not legitimate in polite circles to argue for smaller government. It was as if you were attacking Quebec’s identity.

For the past 50 years, the Quebec elites have been telling us that big government is not just good for the usual egalitarian and collectivist reasons that are popular elsewhere. It is also essential to protect Quebec’s identity. That’s a very potent mix. Nationalism reinforces big government, and big government reinforces nationalism.

By the way, there is a similar dynamic in the rest of the country. Canadian nationalism reinforces cultural protectionism, centralisation of powers and a big interventionist government in Ottawa. That’s the liberal and NDP vision of the country. But there is a more organized opposition to this vision in English Canada than in Quebec in the media and elsewhere.

It’s ironic that this is so today, because before the Quiet Revolution, French Canada was a very conservative society. It is common knowledge that it was conservative in a social and religious sense. But few people know or remember that it was also conservative in the sense that I’m using today, which is in terms of individual freedom, free markets and small government.

Quebec actually had one of the least interventionist governments in North America in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was then a very prosperous, fast-growing economy. It was not an underdeveloped and backward society, as many still believe. But rather one of the richest in the world, with a growing middle class. Montreal was the industrial and financial center of the country.

There was a strong political majority in favour of free markets and small government. The socialist and interventionist fads that swept the United States during the Great Depression, and English speaking Canada later, had very little appeal in Quebec at that time.

Now, the people who supported these small government principles did not suddenly disappear in 1960. But their intellectual and political legitimacy was swept away by a strong wave of nationalism and government interventionism. They have been in the political wilderness since then.

These principles are coming back in the political debates. One indication of this is the success of the Montreal Economic Institute, where I briefly worked as vice-president five years ago before going into politics. There is a lively community of libertarians on the Web in Quebec. Many individuals and groups who support these ideas are now being heard and becoming more mainstream.

Some people may reply that the failure of the Action démocratique du Québec – the ADQ – and its former leader Mario Dumont, is proof that Quebecers will not support a party that wants to shrink the size of government. I draw a different conclusion from this.

From the time it was launched more than fifteen years ago, the ADQ always had a rather confused program. It was autonomist most of the time, but during the 1995 referendum on independence, it supported the Yes side.

Also, it was never consistently in favour of smaller government. At some periods, it advocated cutting the size of bureaucracy, paying back the debt, implementing a flat income tax, and opening the health care system to private providers. My observation is that when it emphasized these issues, it usually grew in the polls and won a higher percentage of the vote.

At other times, it proposed more interventionist policies. Its platform advocated new welfare state programs to support families, bureaucratic planning of investments, and opposing tax cuts. It was hard to distinguish it from the other parties.

It suffered a crushing defeat at the last election, going from being the official opposition with 41 seats to only seven seats. A major reason is that 700,000 people who had voted for the ADQ previously did not find any good reason to vote for it this time. They did not vote for other parties either. Only 57% of Quebecers bothered to vote, the lowest participation rate in almost a century. I think these people were disaffected conservatives who concluded they had no political home.

It’s pretty clear to me that there is support in Quebec for free-market and small government principles, just as elsewhere. But this political niche has never been exploited in a consistent manner. There is also strong support for a decentralized federation. Decentralization is a conservative principle, but in Quebec of course, it also resonates for traditional nationalist reasons.

The host of this conference, Mr. Manning, founded a party over two decades ago that proposed exactly that: specific measures to decentralize the federation and reduce the size of the central government. As you know, it was very successful in the West. Our prime minister, and many of my colleagues in caucus, are former Reformers.

I had a chance recently to read the Reform Party Blue Book, which was the party program, and other documents from that time. There were remarkable proposals in there to address Canada’s public policy issues. Some of them would be considered very courageous today. Mr. Manning and Reformers were not afraid to question received wisdom and raise difficult issues. I very much like one quote from Mr. Manning that I found in the documents: “A dollar left in the hands of a consumer, investor, entrepreneur, or taxpayer is more productive than that same dollar in the hands of a bureaucrat, a lobbyist, or a politician.”

The Reform Party became the official opposition in 1997. But it never managed to make any inroad in Quebec. Many people who were attracted to its policies in Ontario and in the Atlantic provinces did not vote for it because they saw it as a regional western party that would never succeed in Quebec.

I did not follow it closely at the times and it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly the source of the problems. But I can tell you one thing: almost all Quebecers believed at the time that this party was hostile towards Quebec and had nothing to offer them. Right or wrong, there was a perception that it was anti-French. They saw the Triple-E Senate proposal as a way to reduce Quebec’s influence to the level of PEI. They saw angry people railing against the excessive power of what they called “Central Canada” – Quebec and Ontario.

I have great respect and admiration for what Mr. Manning has done, but unfortunately, he never became fluent in French and could not speak directly to Quebecers to counter these negative perceptions. There were only a handful of supporters in Quebec, and no well-known public figure to explain how Reform policies could be advantageous to Quebec.

It’s unfortunate because I think Reform could have had a chance to become the governing party if it had de-emphasized these divisive aspects, and emphasized its small-government and decentralizing policies that could appeal to conservatives in all regions of the country. And if it had done so in both official languages.

Having good policies is not enough. You have to sell them in a way that takes into account Quebecers’ particularities and sensibilities. Or else you can easily be accused of negating Quebec’s specific character. Whether you like this or not, this has been part of Quebec’s political culture for two centuries, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. To sell conservative policies in Quebec, you have to take this into account.

It’s like commercial ad campaigns: very often, in order to sell the same product, they have a theme for the English-speaking parts of the country, and another one in French. Businesses find it necessary to have two different marketing strategies to effectively reach these different markets.

It’s obvious that all provinces are different in many ways. I certainly am not denying this. But only in Quebec is there a widespread feeling of belonging to a national community. A national community that is also a minority in Canada and a tiny minority on this continent. Our government recognized it with the adoption of the Quebec Nation resolution.

There are many in Quebec who don’t care about this and will never be open to consider the merits of conservative policies, whichever way they are being sold. Some want Quebec independence, period. They want a big government in Quebec City and no government in Ottawa.

Others are Trudeau liberals who think Canada will become more united if there is more centralization, more uniformity and top-down decision-making from the federal government. They want a big government in Ottawa.

Conservatives believe – or at any rate should believe, I think – in the principle of subsidiarity. This means that issues should be handled by the smallest or lowest competent authority, the one closest to the people. This way, each province, each region, each community, develops according to its own personality. This allows local particularities to be expressed. And it prevents conflicts. In this way, no big or influential region, or coalition of regions, can impose its will on others.

We know that in a large and diverse federation like Canada, the fastest way to breed resentment and disunity is to have a big central government intervening in local affairs. Separatism in Quebec, and discontent in the West, grew fastest during the Trudeau era, as a reaction against central government activism.

Jacques Parizeau used to say that he and Pierre Trudeau agreed on almost everything, except where to put the national capital. They were both believers in big government. Left-wing Quebec nationalism and left-wing Canadian centralism feed off each other.

We have nothing to offer these two groups. As Mr Manning used to say, conservatives offer a third way: a smaller, less interventionist government in Ottawa, restricted to its areas of jurisdiction. And there are many people in Quebec who are tired of the other two options and are yearning for such a third way.

Conservative policies don’t need to be watered down to appeal to a substantial portion of Quebec voters. On the contrary, as I said to a Calgary audience recently, I believe that to succeed, we have to be consistent, to defend our principles openly, with passion and with conviction.

What conservative principles need in Quebec is to be sold with a particular attention to Quebec’s specific political culture, just as they are tailored to be attractive to an English-speaking audience. They have to be crafted as a way to solve the problems of all of Canada, including Quebec, and not as a reaction from one region against another. If we succeed in doing this, conservatism has a brilliant future in this country.

Thank you.