Ryan Remiorz The Canadian Press François Legault during the 2018 elections
From crazy idea, to consensus, to project of law contested from the inside: the reform of the voting system took a bumpy road before being officially abandoned in 2021 because “it does not interest the population, apart from a few intellectuals”. A short story of the scrapping of a project that was to profoundly change Quebec democracy.
May 9, 2018. The image is strong. François Legault, all smiles, is about to put his signature on a piece of paper. The PQ leader, Jean-François Lisée, and solidarity co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois stare at him. Like them, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) undertakes, if he wins the October 1 vote, to “submit a bill […] no later than October 1, 2019” in order to partially correct the distortion between the percentage of votes and the percentage of seats won by each political party in the elections.
“For me, we are no longer at the debate stage, we are at the action stage,” insisted Mr. Legault on May 9, 2018. He is back in the electoral campaign, promising that he will not not a “Justin Trudeau” of himself by leaving reform aside once in power.
At the time, Jean-François Charbonneau dared to believe him. “I spent twenty-five years in the National Assembly. Although I have seen a lot of treachery,” underlines the current president of the New Democracy Movement (MDN) and former president of the National Assembly. “I was giving the runner a chance. »
Mr. Charbonneau will participate on Monday in the conference “The reform of the ballot: assessment of a Quebec experience”, organized by the House of Public and International Affairs of the University of Montreal and the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. Former political advisors to the Legault government will also be there.
Within the Legault team, the idea of joining the movement for electoral reform was born in 2014. Research advisor for the second opposition group, Émilie Foster worked there with future minister Benoit Charette. “Mr. Legault accepted that we bring the file,” recalls Ms. Foster, who represented the population of Charlevoix–Côte-de-Beaupré from 2018 to 2022.
At the time, reviewing the voting method to ensure better representation of the population was a “sincere” commitment, she assures. The idea joins the CAQ's desire to “fight against cynicism,” adds Jean-Benoît Ratté, who joined the CAQ in 2017. “That is to say, a more efficient State, less corruption…” he summarizes.
Brought to power in 2018, the Legault government agreed to “put a component of proportionality” in the first-past-the-post voting system. “In government, we were told: we have one year to do it,” says Louis-François Brodeur, former advisor to Minister Sonia LeBel (2018-2020). In the Prime Minister's office, it is Jean-Benoît Ratté who inherits the file. He puts it “at the top of the list”.
In anticipation of tabling a bill, the approximately 70 deputies of the Legault government are consulted. “Several MPs spoke on both sides,” underlines Mr. Brodeur.
But fears of seeing Quebecers being led by “minority governments in perpetuity” incapable of taking “strong actions” assail more than one elected… and not elected.
“Myself, once I sit in the seat of an MP, it sure makes you think,” concedes the former elected official from Charlevoix–Côte-de-Beaupré. “I have not become against it, but it is clear that there are fears. Will I lose my job? If I decide to run again, will I be on the list of MPs or will I not be protected? »
September 25, 2019. Sonia LeBel files Bill 39 aimed at creating two categories of deputies: 80 “constituency” deputies and 45 “regional” deputies. The “constituency deputy” would be elected in the traditional way, while the “regional deputy” would be designated according to the result obtained by his political party in the administrative region where he is running for office.
“To rally the caucus” around the new voting method, the bill provides for a referendum on electoral reform. If the “yes” vote wins, the reform will be implemented in 2026. “The message is to say [to deputies]: “you are not losing your job at the next election”” , analyzes Mr. Ratté.
In the following months, the elected representatives of the CAQ were therefore “out of negotiations”, explains Émilie Foster. Where, then, does the opposition to reform come from? “What I can say is that it was “senior” advisors who decided to work against the reform,” says Mr. Ratté.
The former CAQ employee says he learned that the reform was being scrapped in March 2021, around six months before the news was made official. “The straw that broke the camel's back” and precipitated his departure from the government, says Mr. Ratté.
“When I resigned, I went to dinner with my boss to explain to him, then I told him: “Listen, Quebec is run by eight people,” he says.
Pascal Mailhot, former director of strategic planning in the Prime Minister’s office Minister François Legault (2018-2022), explains that the “momentum» of the voting system reformers “was broken by the pandemic” of COVID-19.
The prospect of holding a referendum on the new voting system on October 3, 2022, in addition to the general elections, and this, in the midst of a health emergency, appears “completely disconnected”. The idea of postponing the referendum – and consequently the entry into force of the reform – for four years was quickly swept aside under pressure, in particular, from members of the CAQ caucus.
Very often, we tell ourselves that we must have the power to do what we want. But quickly, power becomes an end in itself.
— Jean-Benoît Ratté
Invited Friday to talk about his aborted bill, the former minister of Democratic Institutions and Electoral Reform Sonia LeBel declined to comment.
Two years later, Émilie Foster is sorry that the Prime Minister abandoned the project. This would have come to “lessen the power” concentrated in the hands of the executive, analyzes the woman who is today an assistant professor of political science at Carleton University, in Ontario.
For Jean- Benoît Ratté, François Legault's decision in 2021 well represents what has become of the party that convinced him to enter active politics. “Very often, we tell ourselves that we have to have the power to do what we want,” he says. But quickly, power becomes an end in itself. »
With Marco Bélair-Cirino