The SNC Lavalin has certainly made the 2019 election more interesting. With a weak NDP and poll numbers that had them in either in the high 30s or low 40s the Liberals looked like they were in reasonably good shape going into the election. The SNC Lavalin scandal has put the party into a more difficult position as it faces potential losses to opposition parties criticizing it for corruption. How the scandal is viewed in Quebec will be central to its impact on the election. Part of the reason Trudeau was able to win a majority in 2015 was the Liberal’s revival in the province. In 2015 they won more seats in Quebec than they had in any election since 1980. How the scandal is framed in Quebec is central to the election. The Liberals will try to frame the scandal as a case where the party has tried to stand up for Quebec protecting a major employer in province and thus, Quebecers’ jobs and economy. The opposition parties will try to frame this as another case of Liberal corruption, tying it to the previous Liberal scandals in the province. Whichever party is best able to frame the issue will stand to make substantial gains in the province later this year.
Public opinion on issues is shaped by the way that issues are characterized. Rarely do voters undergo a careful and dispassionate weighing of the different advantages and disadvantages of an issue or the different perspectives on any given scandal. Rather, the broader ideas, or frames, that people immediately associate with an issue shape their response. For example, those that read stories about pipeline development that talk about pipelines’ economic impacts on Canada are more likely to end up supporting pipeline development while those that read stories that focus on pipelines’ environmental impact are likely to oppose pipeline development. In one case pipelines are framed in economic terms and can be linked to voters’ broader concerns about the economic well-being and jobs. In the other, pipelines are framed in environmental terms and can be linked to voters’ concerns about climate change and oil spills.
Unlike in English Canada, in Quebec the Liberals have a frame that can help them navigate the SNC Lavalin scandal. As a major employer they can highlight the importance of the company to employment on Quebec and try to cast them as a government standing up for the jobs of Quebecers. This fits with other policies that the Trudeau government has pursued. The government has provided support for another Quebec company, Bombardier, when it looked like financially difficulties in that company would lead to significant job losses in the province (though the company still ended up laying off workers). As a party with substantial numbers of MPs and leaders, the Liberals can make the case that they are committed to ensuring the well-being of Quebecers and that the SNC Lavalin case is simply another instance of this. With the Conservatives being led by an Anglophone MP from Saskatchewan, there is the potential that the Liberals could add a regional dimension to this framing. They could cast themselves as the party with strong support in Quebec defending the province against a Conservative party that is hostile to Quebec’s interests.
The opposition parties will likely try to cast the SNC Lavalin scandal in a different frame. In English Canada they will highlight this as a case of the Liberals doing their friends favours. In Quebec, though, the opposition parties are likely to place the scandal in the context of a history of Liberal problems with corruption the party has had in the province. The provincial Liberals were booted from office in 2018 in part because of concerns over corruption. In Montreal, the Charbonneau commission has resulted in the conviction of the former mayor of Laval Gilles Vaillancourt and interim mayor of Montreal Michael Applebaum (while the Liberals do not have a municipal wing of the party, Applebaum has similar political leanings) and charges being laid against former Liberal deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeu. Finally, opposition parties will likely highlight that it was a corruption scandal in Quebec, the Sponsorship scandal, that led to the defeat of the last Liberal federal government in 2006. In Quebec, the opposition will likely try to cast the SNC Lavalin scandal as one more case of Liberal corruption.
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony does not help the Liberals in the province. Wilson-Raybould revealed that electoral considerations, possibly both provincial and federal, were part of the motivations that the Prime Minister had for pressuring her to grant SNC Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement. This suggests that the Trudeau government was not just trying to protect the jobs of Quebecers, but also that they were trying to protect their own position in power. While voters generally appreciate governments that try to protect voters’ jobs, they generally do not like governments that try to buy their votes with corrupt practices. If the opposition is able to recast the Liberals’ jobs and economy frame as a case where the party was simply trying to buy the votes of Quebecers, the scandal could be a major problem for the party in the province.
Where the Liberal vote in Quebec goes if the opposition parties are successful in framing the scandal through a corruption lens is unclear. As the largest opposition party, with a leader that has tried to reach out to Quebecers, the Conservatives can make a case that they are the natural alternative to the Liberals. Though the NDP has struggled in the province since the 2015 election, they may be eager to reach out to Quebecers, arguing to more left leaning Quebecers that the scandal demonstrates the Liberals are more concerned about corporate friends than voters. The wild card in all of this may be the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc saw their support increase in both the 2004 and 2006 elections as a result of the Sponsorship scandal, though the party was starting from a much stronger base in those elections than they are today. If the party can simultaneously convince voters that the Liberals cannot be trusted to run a clean government and that the Conservatives and NDP are either hostile to Quebec’s interests or fail to understand the issues important to the province, they could see a revival in their support.
Quebec will be central to the 2019 Liberal election. If the Liberals can hold on to their support there, they will have a good base with which they can build from to win government. If their vote in the province collapses an opportunity could open for the Conservatives, the NDP, or even the Bloc Quebecois to improve their electoral fortunes. The extent to which either happens depends on whether the Liberals are successfully able to frame the scandal as an instance where they were looking out for Quebecers’ jobs or whether the opposition parties are able to frame this as another in a long line of Liberal corruption scandals in Quebec.