Fighting for space: Municipal opposition parties struggle to counteract populist personalities 

Fighting for space: Municipal opposition parties struggle to counteract populist personalities 

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Rosanna Haroutounian

As populist rhetoric seems to be gaining ground in global politics, municipal leaders in Québec have long been winning support by appealing to certain public sentiments.

“Politicians, municipal executives and businesses that deal with municipalities are not very responsive. This sometimes leads to poor management,” opines Jérôme Couture, a postdoctoral fellow in the political science department at Université Laval. “The arrival of a character who seems reactive to the desires of the population is then perceived rather positively.”

The bombastic, media-friendly rhetoric of some of these leaders has reduced the operating space for opposition politicians in some cities. Some opposition leaders say their task in this year’s municipal elections will be to show the public that incumbent mayors have done more to serve the interests of a select few rather than those of ordinary citizens.

“If there has ever been a Montréal mayor who has governed more in the glad-handing, photo-op-craving manner in which he campaigned, I was certainly not alive to witness it. [Montréal mayor Denis] Coderre is a populist without peer,” observed Montreal Gazette columnist Basem Boshra in 2016.

“What I want to offer Montrealers is a vision, which is something that the current mayor is not doing,” says Valérie Plante, who was elected leader of Montréal’s official opposition party, Projet Montréal, in December 2016.

Coderre, a former Liberal MP and minister of citizenship and immigration in the Paul Martin government, was elected mayor of Montréal in 2013 following the resignation of interim mayor Michael Applebaum, who faced charges of conspiracy, breach of trust, and corruption. Applebaum’s resignation in June 2013 came seven months after that of Gérald Tremblay, who also resigned due to allegations of corruption.

“[Coderre] has been great during the transition from Applebaum and Tremblay, but now what Montréal really deserves is a vision,” says Plante.

“It is my job now to offer voters that possibility, that alternative, to show them that being mayor can be more than taking pictures and being at every event.”

Plante says Coderre’s approximately three decades in politics is a significant difference between them. While both sought municipal office for the first time in 2013, Plante was a political newcomer, having worked with nonprofits throughout her career.

“It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to have as much experience as Monsieur Coderre, that’s not what I’m saying, but there’s definitely a culture that’s been evolving in the last 30 years and that we cannot deny,” she adds. Plante explains that as an established member of the political elite, Coderre has many people to please.

“I’m more interested in meeting fewer people, but having a real conversation with them because I find people are tired of cynicism.” She says economic disparities between boroughs and the relative lack of opportunities in downtown Montréal are forcing people to move to surrounding communities.

“We need to keep people on board and I don’t think right now that’s what the administration is doing,” she says. “It’s more like what we say in French, poudre aux yeux – kind of a magic in the air, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Some political observers have criticized Coderre’s decisions and publicity stunts, such as banning pit bulls, planning and then cancelling construction projects, and taking a jackhammer to a Canada Post community mailbox.

“Where’s the vision? Where do we envision our city in the next five years, ten years, fifteen years?” asks Plante. “I know what I’m looking for because I have my kids here and I want them to continue to live in Montréal.”

Plante says being a woman in politics allows her to expose perspectives that are often overlooked by municipal politicians, such as the amount of time it takes mothers with strollers to cross the street, and the safety of bike paths at night.

She adds that the support of her fellow Project Montréal councillors is an important factor in her decision to run for mayor and stay in politics, where women are often more harshly scrutinized than their male colleagues.

In the provincial capital, Anne Guérette faces the challenge of defeating Québec City mayor Régis Labeaume. Guérette is now the only representative of the official opposition party, Démocratie Québec. Guérette, who was elected leader of the party in December 2016, is campaigning with new candidates after three Démocratie Québec councillors separately announced they would be sitting as independents.

“Monsieur Labeaume has absolute power, and this is not healthy because he can do whatever he wants,” says Guérette.

She makes a comparison between Labeaume and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump.

“They say anything … but they still are elected and re-elected, so I see a similarity,” says Guérette. “I think it’s because people say they are themselves. They’re not politicians with the langue de bois,” she says, using the French expression for language that is purposely ambiguous.

Couture, the Laval researcher, says Labeaume may be likened to a populist leader in the way he has presented issues to the public since he became mayor in 2007.

“Mayor Labeaume generally presents himself as the representative of the general interest and paints his opponents as representatives of special interests.”

He adds that Labeaume’s political style is somewhat presidential in that he reacts to the desires of the population, which gives him legitimacy.

The plan to ban pit bulls, the construction of Centre Vidéotron and the proposed third bridge between Québec and Lévis are some of Labeaume’s ideas that have struck a chord with certain voters but also caused controversy. Labeaume backtracked on his initial proposal to ban pit bulls, including those already in the city, after facing backlash from dog owners.

“He makes decisions as if it was his own money, and this is something I really don’t agree with, because public money is precious for me,” says Guérette, an architect who entered municipal politics in 2007, the same year Labeaume was first elected.

Guérette mentions rising property taxes for residents and business owners as a source of growing dissatisfaction among citizens.

“We have a high-maintenance mayor, and people are beginning to realize it,” she says. Her party plans to freeze taxes for business owners if elected.

Another point of contention is Labeaume’s desire to do away with referendums on urban planning bylaws following the adoption of the province’s Bill 122, which would give municipalities greater autonomy.

“I believe in the public wisdom,” says Guérette. “It’s important to listen to public expression and try to listen on a wide spectrum, not just a few.”

Couture says the city’s efforts to find other ways of consulting with citizens after Bill 122 will demonstrate the mayor’s willingness to give citizens a voice in municipal politics. He says so far, the mayor has succeeded in engaging with them through traditional media, whose presenters are often critical of him as well.

Meanwhile, he points out that populist leaders – and certain other mayors in Québec – will employ methods outside regular exchanges with the media to communicate more directly with citizens, and often go unchallenged.

“He has a line right into the studio in some of the radio stations in our region,” says Josée Néron, leader of the official opposition in Saguenay, of Mayor Jean Tremblay. “If he hears anything that he doesn’t like he will call – any time of the day – he will call right into the studio and say whatever he has to say right there on the air.”

She says that during his 20 years as mayor, Tremblay has created an atmosphere of fear that allows him to hold onto power.

“We don’t have the same exposure as this guy,” she says of her party, L’Équipe du Renouveau démocratique (ERD).

Mayor Tremblay has hosted television programs on Saguenay’s community channel, provided regular commentary on several local radio stations, and appealed to residents in videos on the City of Saguenay’s website. In a video posted on the website and YouTube in 2015, for example, he appealed to forestry workers to defend their natural resources against “Greenpeace and intellectuals,” who he said were trying to block important economic development projects. He also told Québec City radio presenter Sylvain Bouchard of Bouchard en parle that “Muslims are starting to get on [my] nerves” and “they plant bombs everywhere.”

Néron says Tremblay uses public funds to buy advertising in local newspapers, boasting about the accomplishments of his administration.

“What he says to himself is, ‘Nobody will verify what I say, and if I say something ten times, even if it’s not necessarily all true, it will become the truth for the people who don’t have time to read, to take all the information, and make the difference between what’s the truth and what’s not the truth.’” Néron compares this to the Trump administration’s use of “alternative facts.”

Néron adds that she and fellow ERD councillor Christine Boivin have minimal space to debate municipal issues on city council. When they do speak, she says Tremblay makes it appear as though they are incompetent or opposed to everything his party is proposing.

“If you look at all the big dictators throughout the history of the world, those guys weren’t that strong or powerful,” she says. “The power they had was the power people were giving them.”

In 2010, the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec published a “dossier noir” which recounts the ways local journalists were prevented from doing their jobs by powerful mayoral administrations. “After questioning the work of elected officials in the name of the public interest, journalists end up getting confused with the opposition in those cities where the mayor’s reign is unchallenged,” the dossier’s authors write. “Journalists in the [Saguenay] region complain about having to speak directly to the mayor to get a fact as trivial as the number of flower boxes installed in the city. The mayor’s accessibility to the media … ends up doing a disservice to the public interest, because it masks the fact that he’s trying to strategically control the message. This problem is not unique to Saguenay.”

Labeaume has made clear that he intends to seek re-election in November 2017; Guérette will be his principal challenger. Coderre is also running for re-election. Tremblay, for his part, announced in 2015 that he would not seek an additional term as mayor. Néron says after “la Grande Noirceur” of Tremblay’s time as mayor, she hopes the fall election will bring in “la Renaissance” in terms of access to information and room for debate.

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About Author

Rosanna Haroutounian

Rosanna Haroutounian was raised in Mississauga, Ontario, and studied journalism and political science at Carleton University. She currently works as an English assistant at a college in Quebec City. She enjoys reading, baking, being outdoors, and travelling the world when time and finances allow.

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