MONTREAL - To take the pulse of the Quebec electorate as Premier Pauline Marois prepares to launch a late-winter bid for a majority government, one can do worse than spend part of an afternoon at the blood clinic of a Montreal hospital.
Such is the tedium of waiting for routine tests in a cellphone-free zone that the arrival of a political columnist is almost as welcome a diversion as that of a clown doing the rounds of the children’s ward.
One of the side benefits of commenting on politics on television is that the ice that a journalist would normally have to break to get people to share their opinions has already melted.
Be it at the supermarket, on a city bus or in this case a blood clinic, answers to politically intrusive questions are often volunteered freely.
With dislike of the federal Conservatives rampant in Quebec, it is common these days for a chat about politics to start off with comments about the “sad” state of affairs in Ottawa. On that score the conversation I had with some of my more talkative comrades- in-waiting on Thursday did not break the pattern.
If a federal election were held now, many Quebecers would look to vote Stephen Harper out rather than vote Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair in.
If only in a negative sense, the Prime Minister has become a uniquely unifying federal figure in Quebec
On provincial terrain, there is distinctly less consensus.
By now there is not a Quebecer who does not expect an election this spring. On Wednesday, Marois concluded a two-day caucus retreat with a speech designed to road-test her campaign slogan. It equates the PQ with prosperity and its main rivals with austerity.
But it was the premier’s promise that a majority PQ government would reactivate the sovereignty file and put forward a white paper on Quebec independence that had caught the attention of one of those with whom I shared the waiting room on Thursday.
This francophone voter was turned off by the prospect of a return to referendum politics. Yet when I suggested that he would not support the PQ in the election, he was not so certain.
He explained that although he was not a big fan of the government’s plan to impose a secular dress code on all public sector employees, he felt Marois deserved credit (and possibly his vote) for trying to clarify the issue of the public accommodation of religious minorities.
More and more Quebecers are turning their minds to the choices on offer in an imminent election these days. Thursday’s waiting room exchange was just one of many recent conversations on the same theme over the past week. All of them involved perfect strangers and most of them featured the same ambivalence.
When all is said and done the notion that a PQ majority could pave the way to a resumption of the debate over Quebec’s future remains a major roadblock standing between Marois and the majority she covets.
On that score her promise of a white paper was more defensive than proactive. It amounts to an attempt to avoid placing a referendum squarely in the window of a majority mandate without demobilizing the sovereigntist base of the party.
But at the end of the day the PQ’s referendum agenda remains the elephant in the election room and the greater the odds of a Marois majority, the bigger that elephant stands to become — to the point of potentially offsetting some of the benefits to the PQ of its secularism charter.
If I had to, I would bet that the voter I chatted with on Thursday will not in the end support Marois. By all indications his distaste for any kind of referendum talk already outweighs his appreciation of the PQ’s charter efforts.
But that presumes that the Quebec Liberals under rookie leader Philippe Couillard will not trip over themselves over the course of the campaign in the way that they so consistently did over the charter debate.
With a Quebec election call probably only weeks away little could be less certain.