Opinion: Denis Coderre may not be right for Liberals, but he's done the party a favour

Public awareness of the Quebec Liberals’ leadership vacuum has risen considerably since the former Montreal mayor signalled his likely intent to run for the job.

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Back in November, I wrote that the Quebec Liberal Party was suffering immensely from a leadership vacuum. I criticized the party’s decision to punt the contest to find its new leader into 2025, and argued that the remarkable resurgence of the Parti Québécois ought to be largely credited to the energy and vigour of its leader, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.

In the age of viral clips and soundbites, cogent and articulate leadership arguably matters more than ever. This is further evidenced by the almost presidential nature of the surging Conservative Party of Canada’s perma-campaign placing Pierre Poilievre front and centre in advertising materials hammering the federal government.

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Public consciousness of the Quebec Liberals’ leadership vacuum has risen considerably since Denis Coderre signalled his likely intent to run for the job in January. A Léger poll in early February indicated that installing Coderre as leader would give the party a boost in support from 15 per cent to 21 per cent.

Nevertheless, as Patrick Déry of Quebecsplaining.ca notes, Coderre’s reputation as an unflappable election-winning machine is somewhat goosed up and, most significantly, his losing campaigns in the 2017 and 2021 Montreal mayoral elections were rife with self-inflicted errors.

Ultimately, notwithstanding his impressive ability to earn media attention, it’s difficult to see how Coderre isn’t yesterday’s man when it comes to the punishing and unforgiving world of politics. And the Quebec Liberals are already at severe risk of becoming intractably coated with the veneer of yesterday’s party in the headspace of the electorate.

Around this time last year, Philippe J. Fournier of Qc125 suggested in a tweet that the Quebec Liberals were dead as a political force after the loss of former leader Dominique Anglade’s Saint-Henri—Sainte-Anne seat to Québec solidaire in a byelection. But the PQ’s revitalization shows that parties with deep roots are capable of making a comeback.

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Yesterday’s man leading yesterday’s party, however, would surely be a bridge too far.

The question is how deep the Quebec Liberals’ remaining roots across the province are. Graham Fraser once wrote that some of the most prominent political leaders in Quebec — Maurice Duplessis, René Lévesque, François Legault — relied fundamentally on uniting the anti-Liberal sentiment across the province. But this was predicated on an acknowledgment that it was the Liberals that had “the deepest roots” in civil society and across intellectual and political life.

The party published a report on its latest strategy for revival in October, condensing the Liberal values famously first articulated by former leader Claude Ryan in 2002 into a three-pronged mission to “assert, unite and prosper.” The devil will be in the details of what these abstractions mean, and the old saying in politics and comedy remains true: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Still, the Liberals have a claim to an authentic and deeply rooted relationship to the political culture of Quebec. But this needs to be given voice in a way that reactivates a dormant political consciousness.

In recent years, differences between Montreal and the rest of the province have become fodder for some cynical and reactive electoral and policy moves that will put the cohesion of Quebec’s political culture at risk. But I believe these disconnects between the metropolis and the regions have become caricatured and distorted by the incentives of the electoral map.

Theoretically, a strong Liberal leader would be well positioned to lucidly communicate values that transcend this trumped-up divide and appeal to a more inclusive, less reactive vision for Quebec. Coderre is not the person to do it, in my opinion, but it’s a positive for the party that the position of leader is at least on the public’s radar now.

Dónal Gill is assistant professor of Canadian politics at Concordia University.

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