Jesse Robichaud

By: Jesse Robichaud

Quebec’s volatile political landscape can be a true jungle for federal leaders as they balance their efforts in the province and across the country. It is one of the true tests that must be faced by any future prime minister, and it will reach a fever pitch in this evening’s pressure-filled French-language debate.

Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney’s breakthrough in his home province in 1984 powered his way to a 211 seat majority and the largest electoral win in Canadian history.  Mulroney’s experience demonstrates the political spoils that lay between the province’s Ontario and Atlantic boundaries, but it also highlights the perils leaders face as they attempt to communicate on Quebec issues both within the province and outside its borders.

Indeed, following rounds of damaging constitutional negotiations revolving around Quebec, Mulroney’s winning coalition was decimated on both battlefronts, giving rise to the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party.

The damage sustained by Mulroney both within Quebec and points West as a result of his approach toward Quebec highlights the two sets of calculations today’s federal leaders will be making as they face-off for the first time in French in this evening’s debate.

The first calculation facing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is the most obvious one. They each want to maximize their seat count in the province’s 78-riding battlefield. Mulcair is expected to win the most seats in the province, and Trudeau is expected to score some gains but the jury is still out on whether he will accomplish a meaningful breakthrough.

Questions remain on whether the Conservatives will see their vote collapse any further than in 2011, or whether they can target traditionally Conservative ridings in the Quebec City area to inch closer to their goal of retaining government.

Beyond Quebec’s seats, however, each leader must also calculate how his approach to Quebec impacts his overall strategy and how it is perceived in the rest of Canada where the battle lines are drawn up in very different ways.

In 2011, Harper proved it was possible to win a majority government without a significant number of seats in Quebec, and he did it by working to effectively make Quebec’s issues relative non-issues in the rest of Canada. That allowed the Conservatives to draw up messaging that worked in Canada’s predominantly English-speaking provinces that didn’t necessarily need to resonate in Quebec. The result was a Conservative campaign with concise messaging, clean execution, and fewer misfires than previous efforts.

The path travelled by Harper in 2011 is not an option for Mulcair, whose relevance as a contender is built on his party’s strength in Quebec. For his part, Trudeau does not have sufficient support in Western Canada to win anything without a solid showing in Canada’s second most populous province.

The problem for both opposition challengers is that Quebec is not an easy place to make political calculations that work in the province and in the rest of Canada, and therein lies a significant advantage for Harper between this first French-language debate and October 19.

The dual implications of Quebec politics may help to explain why the Liberal campaign chose Hamilton, Ontario of all places as the backdrop to launch a double-barrelled attack against NDP leader Thomas Mulcair on September 13 for his positions on national unity, the Clarity Act, and Quebec independence.

Leading the attack was former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a cagey and successful veteran of federal politics and the Quebec political landscape. Chrétien understands how a message can play within Quebec and outside the province, in French of in English. In fact, he even took time to criticize Mulcair for saying different things in French in Quebec and outside the province in English.

It is a criticism that has been hurled at Trudeau in this very same campaign, at Chrétien in past campaigns, and likely against all leaders who have faced the challenge of finding the right balance on the tightrope of federal politics in Quebec and the rest of Canada. The question that remains is which leader will be able to perform the balancing act most successfully on both battlefronts.

Jesse Robichaud is an ENsight consultant with more than a decade of experience in public affairs. He served as press secretary to the Premier of New Brunswick following his experience as a political correspondent.