The Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) is in crisis. After the worst electoral score in its history in October 2022 and the resignation of its then leader, Dominique Anglade, the party suffered a crushing defeat in the by-election in Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne riding on March 14. A Liberal stronghold since its inception, in this riding the party won only 29 per cent of the vote against 45 per cent for Québec solidaire (QS). How did the Liberal Party, once the main political vehicle of Quebec’s ruling class, get here?
The fall of this old party, founded in 1867 and which held power for a total of 87 years, is another demonstration of the growing rejection of the capitalist establishment and its traditional representatives.
The reign of the QLP
To understand the current crisis, one must look at the history of this party in recent decades.
From the 1960s to the 1970s, the Liberal Party became the party par excellence of the rising Quebec bourgeoisie. The ruling class could count on it to put the unions in their place and defend its interests. With the rise of the Parti Québécois (PQ) and its sovereignty project at the same time, the Liberal Party sold itself as the party of stability. The party’s main selling point was that it was not the PQ and that it opposed Quebec independence. Eventually, in the 1980s and 1990s, the PQ discredited itself by implementing drastic austerity measures. Each time, the QLP used them to regain power, and essentially enacted the same policies. For more than 40 years, these two parties traded power in this way.
The Liberal Party’s halo began to fade in the 2000s and 2010s. Following the crisis of 2008, the QLP proclaimed the need for a “cultural revolution” in Quebec, i.e., drastic austerity measures attacking the Quebec welfare state.
The Jean Charest government of the time proposed the infamous 75 per cent tuition increase. This measure led to the largest student strike in the country’s history in the spring of 2012, which led to a humiliating Liberal defeat, with Charest himself losing his seat. The government’s repression and violence in the face of the movement left its mark on a generation of young Quebecers, and made them hate the Liberals.
It was also during this period that the party’s massive corruption was revealed. The Charbonneau hearings in 2011 revealed the extent of collusion between the QLP and construction companies. Wealthy Quebec capitalists were filling the party’s coffers and the Liberals were thanking them with preferential treatment. Corruption and austerity undermined the party’s reputation.
After a brief PQ government between 2012 and 2014, the Liberals returned to power with massive austerity measures. The day after he was elected, MNA Carlos Leitão, appointed finance minister under Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government, said, “We’re going to review, program by program, to see if it’s still relevant to maintain this, or to eliminate them altogether.” And that’s what they did. All public services have been affected. The Barrette reform, among others, has seriously damaged the health care system. The QLP’s austerity measures have made the governing party from 2014 to 2018 the most hated government in recent Quebec history, and with good reason. The party is now living with the consequences of this entire era of attacks on the working class.
PQ takes QLP down with it
Parallel to the actions of the QLP in power, the oppositional landscape was changing. During this period, class struggles (the 2004 and 2010 common fronts, the 2012 student strike, among others) relegated debates on the national question to the background. With the loss of interest in the independence question and the federalism-sovereignty debate, the PQ began to lose ground to Québec solidaire on the left and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) on the right. The Liberals thus lost their typical boogeyman .
We explained at the time that the fall of the PQ and the rise of QS and the CAQ expressed the polarization to the left and right in Quebec and the rejection of the establishment. Now, this rejection of the establishment has caught up with the Liberal Party itself.
It is the CAQ that has benefited the most from the PQ’s retreat. CAQ premier François Legault openly rejected the federalism-sovereignty debate, while presenting the CAQ as a nationalist party that would defend the interests of Quebecers. The CAQ exploited (and still exploits) “identity” issues, presenting itself as the great defender of the Quebec nation.
While stealing nationalist ground from the PQ, Legault presented himself as a man trusted to lead the economy. Thus, the QLP was robbed of the title of party of “the economy”—that is, the party of the bosses—by the CAQ. With the PQ in free fall and the CAQ rising as the new party of business, there is almost no reason for the Liberals to exist.
This can be seen in the party’s funding. At its peak, the Liberal Party was raising more than $9 million a year and was by far the richest party. But as of August 2022, the QLP was dead last in financing behind QS, the Conservative Party of Quebec, the PQ, and the CAQ with only $310,688 raised! The bourgeoisie has clearly abandoned its traditional vehicle.
Ultimately, the collapse of the Quebec Liberal Party reflects the crisis of the capitalist system as a whole. The collapse of the historic party of the ruling class is not unique to Quebec. In many countries, the traditional parties that have been guilty of implementing austerity since 2008 have been discredited and punished by the electorate. The muted anger everywhere at the status quo is driving more and more people to try new parties.
Finish off the Liberal Party
The QLP, while weak, is not dead. Oddly enough, the party is still the official opposition, with 19 MNAs concentrated mainly in ridings with a high percentage of anglophones. Historically, the party has managed to maintain a base among anglophones and other minorities by claiming to defend them against nationalists and sovereigntists. Many of the minorities who do not identify with the identity-based nationalism of the CAQ and PQ still vote, probably without much enthusiasm, for the QLP.
The collapse of the QLP offers an opportunity to unite Quebec’s working class across the linguistic divide. After its victory in Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne, QS was accused by the PQ of masking its nationalism—by not talking about independence, having leaflets in English only, etc. These ridiculous accusations nevertheless demonstrate a constant dynamic where right-wing nationalists put pressure on QS to prove its nationalism. Unfortunately, QS often falls into their trap. The vote of the QS MNAs in favour of the CAQ’s Bill 96, and their call for the resignation of Amira Elghawaby as the federal government’s special representative on combatting Islamophobia, are examples of this. Thus, in the eyes of English-speaking workers and oppressed minorities, QS sometimes gives the impression of being on the same side as the PQ and CAQ. Instead, Québec solidaire should openly and unambiguously denounce every manifestation of identity-based nationalism.
Workers of all backgrounds, even those who have voted Liberal for generations, are affected by the crisis of capitalism. If Québec solidaire were to adopt a class discourse that rejects attempts to divide along linguistic, religious, and national lines, it could wrest the last remnants of its electoral base from the QLP. To do this, it would have to adopt a socialist program, the only program capable of offering a solution to the problems of the entire working class of Quebec. This is the way to finish off the Quebec Liberal Party.