What Ontario can learn from Quebec’s ‘change’ election

What Ontario can learn from Quebec’s ‘change’ election

Quebecers have just shown Ontario voters how to conduct a “change” election that doesn’t derail the fight against climate change.

Monday’s voter revolt against Liberal rule that dated from 2003 (with a brief PQ interregnum) will have a familiar echo to Ontarians who rebelled against a 15-year Liberal dynasty at Queen’s Park last June. Pent-up frustration reduced the Liberal parties in both provinces to humbling lows.

Yet Quebec’s political environment remains dramatically different from Ontario’s carbon battleground. While Quebecers “threw the bums out,” they didn’t throw out the environmental baby with the political bathwater.

Unlike Ontario, Quebec isn’t about to walk away from signed carbon reduction commitments that linked both provinces to California in a continental fight against global warming. That’s because Quebec has long led the way on climate change, thanks to a remarkable consensus that crosses party lines — as it does in California.

Not so in Ontario.

It’s easy to fault Ford for his pandering, populist politics. But the final decision, for better or for worse, lay with Ontario voters who were buying what he was selling — because they were in the market for change at any cost.

Our premier is flying to Alberta this weekend to join opposition leader Jason Kenney in their shared crusade against carbon pricing. Drawing a line in the oilsands against carbon taxes, Ford will find fertile ground in the province that is now ground zero for greenhouse gas emissions.

But not in Quebec, not on carbon.

On Monday, Ford publicly celebrated the victory of the populist, right-leaning Coalition Avenir du Quebec Leader François Legault, suggesting they were kindred spirits soon to become soulmates. But the emerging Quebec-Ontario relationship will never replicate the political love affair Ford hopes to consummate with Kenney.

That’s because climate change isn’t a “left” or “right” issue in Quebec.

It is part of the societal and political fabric of that province, forged by former Liberal premier Jean Charest, who cut his teeth as a Progressive Conservative environment minister under then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. A Parti Quebecois government also backed cap and trade, despite its roots as a market-based solution emanating from right-wing Republicans in the U.S.

Equally in California, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has been building on the pioneering work of his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and counting on the bipartisan support of lawmakers for a system that imposes a hard “cap” on emissions, while raising money from firms that “trade” their allowances at auction.

Against that backdrop, the CAQ’s Legault has no intention of following the lead of Ford’s Tories in cancelling cap and trade. To the contrary, he went out of his way on the campaign trail to reassure voters that he was an ardent supporter of carbon pricing, for fear of being painted as soft on the environment.

Ontario’s Tories once fostered a pro-environment consensus under their previous leader, Patrick Brown, who looked to his own political role models — Charest, Mulroney and former premier Bill Davis — as exemplars of environmentalism. The party publicly backed a federally mandated carbon tax at its policy convention a year ago, but that unravelled when Ford replaced Brown a few months later, embracing “axe the tax” as a deceptively simplistic political slogan.

Notwithstanding the fact that Ford and Legault remain worlds apart on the environment, Ontario has moved closer to Quebec’s view on another defining issue — human rights. During the campaign, the CAQ made clear it will go further than Quebec’s previous Liberal government in banning public servants who interact with citizens from wearing any religious articles — the Sikh turban, the Jewish kippa or the Islamic niqab.

Just as Ford threatened to use the charter’s notwithstanding clause to override basic rights protections in Ontario last month, Legault fully intends to invoke it in Quebec going forward. Which means that Ontarians who might once have exhorted Quebecers to respect religious freedoms will surely be more muted in future, their premier having surrendered the moral high ground on human rights in a flourish of political expediency.

It is a tale of two provincial governments — worlds apart in their political environments, yet sharing a new-found commonality in their constitutional visions. You never know how a “change” election will turn your world upside down.

Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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