“When I see the state of public finances, of the healthcare system, the debt, and the measures of the past two years—I can understand why some people miss Jean Charest.”
With those words, Éric Duhaime, the former right-wing radio host and newly minted leader of Quebec’s Conservative Party, wasn’t expressing his admiration of the former Liberal premier.
But if his intention was to wound with faint praise, his statement nonetheless contained a damning admission. Without the legacy of austerity and privatization left behind by Quebec’s Liberal Party, Duhaime’s Conservatives would not have rocketed from rump party to challenging the opposition in the polls.
Before last year, one could be forgiven for not knowing that Quebec even had a Conservative party.
Duhaime’s predecessor Adrien Pouliot garnered less than two percent of the popular vote in the 2018 provincial election.
Now, as Quebec’s 2022 election campaign ramps up toward election day on October 3rd, the Quebec Conservative Party (QCP) has shot from also-ran to news-maker: some polls have it tied with a rising Quebec Solidaire for third place in the popular vote.
François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) will, barring a major upset, have more than it needs for a second majority. But the QCP is only a few percentage points away from being as popular as the official opposition, currently projected to be the Quebec Liberal Party.
In the less than two years since Duhaime became leader, the rise of QCP has been fueled by controversial sound bites that the media has feasted on.
At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Duhaime criticized the CAQ government for emergency health measures he deemed authoritarian and restrictive. He made headlines by calling for removal of all COVID restrictions.
Duhaime endorsed the “Freedom Convoy” and took a firm stance against vaccine mandates, capturing the hearts of both conspiracy theorists and some upper middle-class francophones. The latter group, increasingly skeptical of Legault’s handling of the pandemic and disaffected with the political status quo, bolstered Duhaime’s numbers in early 2022.
Austerity clears the path for a more aggressive approach
Understanding the dynamics that led to Duhaime’s rise requires a closer look at the damage done—to social fabric and the Quebec government’s capacity to act—by neoliberal policies in recent decades.
Dismantling a social democracy and undermining its foundations is a long term project, which has played out over the past four decades in Quebec. It requires successive mandates, and slow and subtle privatization of government services. Long battles with labour unions and student groups slow down the process. From those who would destroy the welfare state, sacrifice is required. Leaders must make unpopular decisions that stain their record, and their party’s reputation.
In this sense, Eric Duhaime owes Jean Charest and his predecessors everything.
Despite Charest’s signature rhetoric of “re-engineering the state,” he did not reinvent the wheel. Indeed, Robert Bourassa is arguably the first Quebec premier to adopt a neoliberal agenda. Following his 1985 election victory, he set up three blue ribbon committees: one to recommend how best to reduce government spending, another in charge of economic deregulation, and a third to advise on the privatization of state enterprises like Quebecair and Madelipêche.
Ever since, neoliberals in Quebec have been trying to achieve the perfect balancing act: allowing the private sector to thrive at the expense of the public sector, while still maintaining a veneer of social democracy. This lukewarm fare is the primordial soup from which a political actor like Éric Duhaime can emerge.
The salad days of a toxic neoliberal
Duhaime has been a well-known avatar of the political right in Quebec for decades.
To his followers, he is a conservative icon. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher during his adolescence, Duhaime studied political science at Université de Montréal and obtained a master’s degree in public administration from École nationale d’administration publique.
He first ventured into politics as a Parti Québécois (PQ) activist, and in 1993 became a political advisor of the Bloc Québécois.
The leader of the Bloc at the time was former Mulroney cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard, conservative by ideology and a nationalist at heart. The Bloc provided a fitting environment for a young Duhaime to start his political career.
Bouchard made the jump to provincial politics in 1996, and became Premier of Québec in 1998 as leader of the PQ. One of his biggest priorities was to eliminate the deficit, which he accomplished through austerity measures.
During his first year in office, Bouchard implemented the Deficit Elimination and Balanced Budget Law (Loi sur l’élimination du déficit et l’équilibre budgétaire) that legally required the Quebec government to have a balanced budget by the year 2000.
Duhaime has made similar priorities part of his 2022 platform.
Duhaime stayed with the Bloc until 1999, when he joined a party that was a better overall fit for his hostility to social democratic measures: Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance—formerly the Reform Party, and which would later join the federal Conservative Party.
Following in Bouchard’s footsteps, Duhaime too made the jump to provincial politics. He found a home with Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a conservative autonomist party. After finishing third during his first candidacy in 2003, Duhaime was hired as an advisor by ADQ leader Mario Dumont, a position he held until 2008.
A mainstay of Quebec’s right wing
Duhaime went on to co-found Le Réseau Liberté-Québec, a nonprofit whose goal was to unite right-wing libertarians in Québec. He also worked for the Montreal Economic Institute, a think tank in the mold of the Fraser Institute.
From 2012 to 2020, Duhaime worked as a radio host and columnist. He shared the microphone with co-hosts such as Nathalie Normandeau, a former Liberal Deputy Premier of Quebec, and Bernard Drainville, a former PQ minister who now works for the CAQ.
Radio X, one of the stations where Duhaime hosted a radio show, is a pillar of what in Quebec is called “radio poubelle”—trash radio. Known for disinformation and vulgar rhetoric, Radio X infamously promoted islamophobia and Covid misinformation, while hosts like Jeff Fillion have been lambasted for sexist and racist remarks.
Fillion and Duhaime famously laughed on air after calling women who worked as political attachés in the National Assembly ugly. The jokes caught up with Duhaime after his political debut, becoming part of his established pattern of courting controversy.
In 2018, Duhaime helped co-found Québec Fier, an online coalition of conservatives expressing their frustrations with Québec’s Liberal Party and most recently, the CAQ. QCP members encouraged him to run for leadership in 2021, and when results came in, Duhaime had won the support of 95 percent of voting party members.
Everything old is new again?
Duhaime does his best to set himself apart from past governments, but his policy choices position him as an heir to their legacy.
The QCP wants greater intervention from the private sector within the healthcare system to compete with its public counterpart, which the party says will encourage better results. Duhaime says he would introduce duplicative health insurance, removing the monopoly of the RAMQ, Quebec’s provincial health insurance provider.
Public-private competition within healthcare already exists in Quebec. Private prescription drug insurance plans were implemented by Lucien Bouchard, and have competed with the RAMQ since 1997. Quebec’s first private clinics were greenlit by Jean Charest in 2006. Their mandate has since expanded to cover more than just a few surgeries.
Private clinics in Quebec now offer services ranging from phone or in-person consultations, to access to a family doctor and more. Private healthcare delivery has been efficient for those who can afford it, but its implementation has weakened an already frail public sector, especially as the pandemic exposed its multiple fault lines.
By his own account, Duhaime is concerned with Quebec’s growing public debt. In their times, Bourassa, Bouchard, Charest, Marois and Couillard all said the same. Debt-obsession is practically the price of entry into the neoliberal clique.
In the name of repaying Quebec’s debt, Bourassa privatized some state enterprises, and Bouchard and Couillard both sought to balance budgets with austerity measures. Charest created the Generations Fund, “financed by revenue sources dedicated to debt repayment and consisting of, in particular, water-power royalties from Hydro-Québec and private producers of hydroelectricity.”
As the author of the book Libérez-nous des syndicats! (Liberate us from Labour Unions), Duhaime considers organized workers an obstacle to political progress. But here again, he is hardly an innovator.
In 2005, the Quebec Liberals introduced a handful of laws that took up the hatchet against labour unions. Bill 142, for example, legally prevented any government sector worker from going on strike or from negotiating their wages for the next five years. This bill was so controversial that it was condemned by the International Labour Organization.
Through the years, Quebec’s Liberal Party advanced attempts to stifle the bargaining power of unions in the health sector, resulting in intense backlash.
Realignment in Quebec politics
Éric Duhaime’s core talents are those of a used-car salesman. His ideas are not new, but his bluster and attention-grabbing controversy generate excitement—and campaign contributions—some from relatively wealthy sectors of Quebec society.
Unlike previous generations of neoliberals in Quebec, Duhaime wears his intention on his sleeve: the welfare state is the enemy.
Duhaime’s success is due, in part, to how his rhetoric is reported on. News articles will inform the readers of his view that further privatization of healthcare will address the system’s current failures. But the coverage almost always fails to identify that neoliberal reforms—which Duhaime has been championing for decades—are what’s causing the healthcare system to fail.
A desire among journalists to appear neutral is a key factor in Duhaime’s rise. When Radio-Canada (French-language CBC) convened a panel of journalists to challenge every party leader last weekend, not one of them pushed back against Duhaime’s rhetoric on healthcare.
Countering Duhaime’s pernicious effect on political discourse means challenging his claims directly.
In the current election cycle, that role has fallen to Quebec Solidaire. The sovereignist progressive party has grown in popularity, and is well ahead of its performance 10 years ago.
So far, the party’s leaders and communications team have presented a coherent and well-thought answer to the neoliberal skeptic’s favourite question: “how will you pay for it?” In 2018, QS proposed to raise the capital gains tax from 50 percent to 100 percent and to add more tax brackets, which would increase the government’s ability to redistribute wealth.
Quebec Solidaire is more than capable of explaining why it represents a necessary alternative. But the party could do more to explain why other parties—and Duhaime in particular—does not.
Going on the offensive could give the left party a much-needed edge. So far, Quebec Solidaire appears to be avoiding this approach, perhaps for fear of marginalizing themselves in the eyes of journalists steeped in four decades of neoliberal consensus.
While there is little short-term benefit to progressives attacking Duhaime—few QCP voters will shift their votes to a left party—the long-term cost of allowing him to spin his own narrative will rise with time.
Quebec Solidaire and Duhaime’s QCP are two key elements in an emerging realignment of Quebec politics from a sovereigntist-federalist axis to a progressive-neoliberal one. The slow, steady growth of Quebec Solidaire may be promising, but the rapid rise of Duhaime and the QCP is enough to temper the most optimistic projections.
While this election cycle promises clearer choices along the left-right divide, stopping the rise of Duhaime-style politics will depend on grassroots organizing, shifts in the media, and a willingness among political leaders to take risks when it matters.