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Leo Panitch: “PQ fronting Pierre Peladeau as a their star candidate blew up in their faces”

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In the Quebec provincial elections that took place earlier this week, the separatist party Parti Québécois suffered its worst defeat since 1970. Its leader, Pauline Marois, lost her seat and later resigned from the party.

Media outlets in Canada are buzzing, asking, is Quebec’s separatist movement dead? Or is it that the Parti Québécois was out of touch with the electorate. The student protests against austerity measures were constant in the background during the elections, as was the Charter of Values and the introduction of big-money union bashing among billionaire candidates.

With us to discuss all of this and more is Leo Panitch. Leo Panitch is the Canadian Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and distinguished research professor of political science at York University, Toronto. He’s the author of many books, the most recent being The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, which won the U.K. Deutscher book prize. He’s also the author of In and Out of Crisis: The Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives.

Thanks for joining us, Leo.


PERIES: So, Leo, what happened during the Quebec elections?

PANITCH: Well, the Parti Québécois got wiped. And this is a very significant development. The unfortunate thing is that they were defeated by the Quebec Liberal Party, which has been a staid and rather corrupt government representing the right in Quebec politics. And, indeed, their foremost candidates, some of whom are very senior economists, world-renowned economists have made it very clear that what they’re about is trying to serve big business and to get big business to invest in Quebec.

So it’s not a good outcome, one has to say, insofar as the Parti Québécois, while a nationalist party and eventually wanting to create a separate state in Quebec, was always more to the left–in a social democratic, mild kind of sense, but nevertheless to the left.

And the choice that voters had was between that party moving rapidly to the right–as you mentioned in your intro, by making a star candidate P. K. Péladeau, who is Quebec’s most prominent media tycoon, the head of Quebecor, the head of the second-largest newspaper chain in Canada, Sun Media, the owner of the largest cable television network in Quebec. And they thought they were going to be able to get people to vote for them by presenting themselves as having capital on their side.

This blew up in their faces. He had been extremely anti-union, famous for his lockouts of workers. And the notion that the Parti Québécois was so cynical as to put forward someone like that as their candidate to make Quebec separatism respectable amongst capitalists blew up in their faces. And it was a remarkable development in that sense.

PERIES: What caused Parti Québécois to go more to the right this way, especially in light of the austerity measures protests that were taking place among students?

PANITCH: Yeah. Well, it shows you (A) how cynical they were in that respect. I remember seeing Pauline Marois–maybe you do, Sharmini–in Porto Alegre at a World Social Forum meeting in the early part of this century. She never was a raving lefty by any means. Her main politics and the whole politics of her generation was nationalism.

Nevertheless, Quebec society has been the most left-wing in Canada since the 1960s, having been the most traditional and patriarchal and religious-dominated until them. But Quebec went through a quiet revolution, as it’s called, in the 1960s. The Parti Québécois came out of that with a kind of a left and progressive project of an independent Quebec state, but their main politics were always nationalist, and they, you know, historically, although the unions have been affiliated with that party, have often engaged in a repression of public-sector trade unionism themselves. So they were hoping, as most nationalists do, to create this impression of a cross-class alliance and to give people the impression that if someone like Péladeau was with them, they had nothing to fear about Quebec independence.

But people don’t want especially the insecurity in the post-crisis context that we’re still in don’t want the insecurity of what independence for Canada would mean. The party has only been viable electorally when it’s not mixed up a general election with the question of leading Canada. They’ve always–they’ve had two previous referenda, both of which they lost, although very, very closely last time. And this guy Péladeau, when he was brought before the media, lifted his fist and said, Quebec is a country. And this mixed up the general election and the respectability he was supposed to give in capitalist terms to the government with the question of, well, was this really about laying the basis for another referendum.

Someone rather close to The Real News, Paul Jay, in another life, when he was a documentary filmmaker, did an absolutely brilliant documentary called Never-Endum Referendum in the 1990s on Quebec’s penchant for having these referenda. And it was brilliantly done, and it kind of predicted that Quebeckers were getting fed up with this, that they wanted a more substantive social politics, rather than an empty nationalist debate. And that has largely proved to be true. And that generation that she represents really, I think, had their last throe at Never-Endum Referendum and have been defeated.

This does lay the basis for, I think, the growing support for a more substantial independence party, but one that is closer to being socialist. They don’t quite use the term, but they use the term social justice. And this is Québec Solidaire. They had two seats before the recent election. They gained an additional one. All of them are in central Montreal, in the poorer working-class districts of Montreal, all three of them. They are definitely on the left. And people who supported the Parti Québécois till now, having some substantive social justice reasons for doing so, are now likely to turn to the Québec Solidaire Party. And we may, in that sense, be seeing the end of Quebec politics being defined in terms of who’s for or against staying in Canada, above all, and being defined much more clearly in terms of who’s in favor of a socially just Quebec and who’s in favor of kissing the butt of the capitalists, which the PQ, unfortunately, has moved towards being alongside the Liberal Party.

PERIES: So, Leo, let’s talk about who won. Philippe Couillard, Liberal Party, won big, gaining twenty seats, and a total of 70 seats. And this was a party that was just ruling just before the Parti Québécois was in power.

PANITCH: Yes, and with a very corrupt record, and with an inquiry going on, an official inquiry going on, which was suspended for the election campaign, into all kinds of corruption. The corrupt contracts that the government was engaged in letting in exchange for kickbacks to politicians or to the Liberal Party. And this is likely to resurface.

So Couillard himself, indeed, was doing some business with the head of the Montreal Hospital, who turned out to be accused of very corrupt practices. But this turned out not to harm him, because of the way the PQ could have conducted this campaign so badly.

I should say, what we left out of this conversation that is very important is that the PQ also tried to follow the root of the French right, the French nationalists, in introducing what is known as a secular charter. There was a fear, especially on the part of rural Quebeckers, about immigrants, especially about Muslim immigrants, but not only. There’s a constant fear in Quebec that Quebeckers, who have a low birth rate, will be overwhelmed by people who’d rather be speaking English in the sea of Anglophone North America.

But there was also an element of fear of women with chadors and so on. And the PQ thought that they’d play a smart one and introduce this charter, the secular charter, which would prohibit people who work in the public sector–in hospitals, schools, as well as in government offices–from wearing any religious symbol, which included even a yarmulke, a skullcap that Jews wear, but also included any other garb, including chadors that women wear and so on. And this showed some popularity in rural areas. But, again, it blew up in their faces in the campaign. Quebeckers are not, for the most part, an intolerant people, and they were not prepared, I think, to accept this. Of course, it led, moreover, for a great many people who were from other parts of the world and now live in Montreal and elsewhere who previously, for social justice reasons, might have voted for the PQ, to switch their vote, and to switch their vote in such a way as to ensure they got defeated, which meant rather than voting for Québec Solidaire, they voted–held their noses, no doubt, but voted for the Liberal Party.

PERIES: One final question, which is about the student protests and Québec Solidaire. Is there a common ground among them? Do you think [crosstalk]

PANITCH: Yes, there’s definitely the common ground. Two of the leaders of the student protests ran as Parti Québécois candidates, and they showed themselves [incompr.] like to be opportunists in doing so. But I think the bulk of the activists in the great student protests in Quebec from just over a year ago would have been in favor of the Québec Solidaire. And I think this can be seen as a rebuke to cynical politicians like Pauline Marois, who put on a little red flannel badge, which is a sign of support for the students, when their campaign was going on, joined them in the streets, but then, when she was in, turned her back on what they were standing for.

I must say, the founder of the Parti Québécois, René Lévesque, once said that no party should last longer than one generation, or else it loses its way. And that appears to be proven in the case of the PQ. The problem with this, of course, is that it also supports the kind of anarchistic politics that the protests of the last decade have been about. They’ve been unstructured protests without linking themselves to a political organization that actually could go in and change the state. And one hopes that this particular incident isn’t going to be used to fuel that type of presumption, which means that we’ll be protesting forever but never actually bringing about any change.

PERIES: Thank you very much.

PANITCH: Good to talk to you. Bye.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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