Quebeckers woke up on October 1st to a new party and a new face as Premier. The Liberals suffered a historical defeat and the PQ was virtually wiped off the electoral map.
The rise of Francois Legault’s CAQ, and the failure of traditional Quebec parties was heralded as an anti-elite backlash, an upending of the traditional political order happening around the world and a warning sign for traditional Canadian political parties.
All of this may prove to be correct. But the rise of Legault heralds a disturbing trend seen mostly in Europe, one that if adopted more widely could spell trouble for Canada’s progressive parties.
An Unconventional Conservative
Legault is not a traditional Conservative. His core message did not declare war on government, attack the poor or offer a full-throated embrace of libertarianism.
Legault’s core promise was to invest in Quebec’s social services like seniors care. He committed time and time again to tackling climate change and maintain Quebec’s cap and trade system. And he promised investments in housing and improvements to Quebec’s childcare system in response to years of Liberal neglect.
As Justin Ling pointed out in his article for The Walrus, Legault’s success could very easily be interpreted as a response to austerity imposed by Phillippe Couillard and the Quebec Liberals.
Contrast this with Conservative politicians across Canada. Andrew Scheer, Jason Kenney, Rob Ford, Scott Moe – every single one refuses to tackle climate change, happily embraces thoroughly discredited trickle-down economics, and actively tries to undermine Canada’s welfare state.
Ford’s actions since becoming Premier are how most Conservatives would approach governing. Like his predecessor Mike Harris, Ford is laying the groundwork for a whole-sale dismantling of Ontario’s social services under the guise of balancing Ontario’s budget.
There is ample evidence that Legault could embrace rightwing trickle-down economics in the future. His history at the libertarian Koch-backed Montreal Economic Institute is deeply worrying. And his campaign promises included slashing Quebec’s bureaucracy, a favourite tactic of the right. But Legault did not win election campaigning on traditional right-wing economic bromides.
Legault’s politics can only be understood against the backdrop of his campaign’s blatant anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. He promised to stop government workers from wearing religious symbols, kick out immigrants if they refuse to learn French, and reduce provincial immigration. Polling is unclear on whether this helped him. But his dominant electoral performance shows that it didn’t hurt.
Intentionally or inadvertently, Legault has stumbled upon a powerful policy and rhetorical mix that’s propelled right-wing leaders into power — and decimated traditional centrist and centre-left parties — around the world.
Welfare For White People
If Legault is the first in Canada to blend support for the welfare state with cultural xenophobia — welfare for white people — he is only replicating a model that has found great success amongst Europe’s far-right parties.
These illiberal far-right demagogues are gaining ground in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden, just to name a few. In each of these countries, politicians have deployed two core messages.
The first is anti-immigrant rhetoric, framed by creation of “the other” in society who threatens a traditional way of life. These outsiders are traditionally immigrants or those who are perceived to not conform to traditional religious or societal norms. If left unchecked, the story goes, “the other” will destroy society. According to right-wing politicians, the political establishment and elites are unwilling to protect society from “the other”.
The second message is support for — and sometimes expansion of — the welfare state. “The other” not only represents a threat to a country’s values, it is a threat to popular institutions and policy programs that citizens and their families rely on and perceive as part of their social fabric. According to European populists, “the other” takes advantage of the state’s generous welfare state. The progressive commitment to universal welfare programs in which everyone can benefit are actually a threat to the institutions themselves. Instead, the right argues, these programs must be defended from “the other” who abuse them for personal gain. Welfare, they claim, must be reserved only for “the people” — in most cases, that means white people.
In France, far-right candidate Marie le Pen campaigned on slashing immigration and institutionalizing xenophobia, but was a “staunch defender of the welfare state”, and supported massive investments in public services.
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Silvini and his Five-Star Movement coalition partner refused to allow migrants to dock on Italian shores, but plans to adopt a universal basic income for the poor and lower the age of retirement for pensioners.
(For more info on Matteo Silvini and the Five-Star Movement, listen to our interview on Italian politics. )
In Poland, the Law and Justice Party established the “Family 500Plus” policy which pays parents to have more children, with zero work requirements. At the same time, the party attacks Muslim refugees and refuses to let them into Poland.
The message is clear: your way of life and services you support are under threat from outsiders. And only rightwing demagogues can protect it.
A Danger to Canada?
Legault’s victory should be understood less as a win for Canada’s traditional conservative movement and more as an import of a tested model for right-wing populists from Europe. Whether right-wing politicians in the rest of Canada will follow suit remains to be seen. Ford, Kenney, and Scheer mouth anti-refugee talking points. Ford has gone even further, explicitly arguing American border crossers threaten Ontario’s public services. Polls point to growing hostility towards immigration. But no other right-wing politician has (so far) been willing to drop their support for free-market economics and opposition to a robust welfare state.
European parties of the centre and centre-left have been utterly incapable of responding to this new brand of right-wing populism. The old traditional parties have, in some cases, managed to cobble together “grand coalitions” to stave off defeat. In France’s case, the combination of a unique run-off voting system and an 11th hour rallying of elite society around a personally popular candidate with a new party brand overcame the threat of Le Pen. But in just over one year in power Emmanuel Macron has become one of the least popular politicians in France, and it’s doubtful he could repeat his success.
This phenomena has become so common in Europe that it now has its own noun: Pasokification, a term that refers to the decline of the Greek centre-left PASOK which saw its vote share plummet from 44% in 2009 to 5% in 2015.
Thus far the only European party that has been able to resist Pasokification is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Corbyn has moved the party back to its leftist roots, embracing policies like public ownership of utilities and railroads and worker co-ownership of industry. These are ideas that are broadly popular, but which right-wing populists — who cannot win without the support of business and the upper middle-class — are unable to embrace.
There is little evidence to suggest, however, that Canada’s political establishment is any more capable of fighting off the right-wing populists than their European counterparts. Our national consensus around immigration and openness is being sorely tested, with support for immigration at record lows. Right-wing politicians like Ford and Scheer are embracing anti-immigrant rhetoric. A propagandistic right-wing media network with outlets like The Toronto Sun at its nexus are already hard at work constructing “the other”.
And there is little indication that either the Liberal or New Democratic parties have any intention of drawing on the success of Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, as much as many of their voters would like to see a shift in this direction.
People in developed capitalist economies around the world are growing frustrated with a system that continues to produce incredible gains for a tiny minority while they are left spinning their tires. People are sick of being at the mercy of forces beyond their control, and apparently beyond the control of their elected leaders — forces that can create or destroy their livelihoods in a flash. They see their own economic prospects diminishing — pensions ransacked, wages stuck, cost of living skyrocketing — and fear their kids will have it even worse. In survey after survey, voters make it clear that they do not want vague promises of “skills training” or boutique tax credits: they want to take back control of their lives.
These are real pains in people’s lives. The European experience over the past decade has shown that if progressive parties are unwilling to acknowledge these, and to tell the truth about where they came from, then someone else will.
Right-wing populists do not have real solutions. They tolerate the welfare state for reasons of political expediency. Their ideas will do nothing to address the systemic causes of economic pain in people’s life. They may not have solutions, and it may even be the case that voters know that. But they are offering something — in fact, they’re offering the next best thing: someone to blame.
And if Canada’s left doesn’t get its act together, it’s an offer voters may very well take them up on.
To learn more about the rise of the far-right around the world, listen to our podcast Cable Street.
Listen to our episode on German politics and the rise of the AFD
Listen to our episode on Italian politics.
Listen to our episode on Brazilian politics.