The Quebec charter of values may be boosting the support of the Parti Québécois in the short term, but the controversial policy could harm the future political fortunes of the sovereigntist party, polling experts say.
A number of polls taken since the issue became public have shown that a majority of Quebecers approve of the charter, which would ban civil servants from wearing kippas, turbans, burkas, hijabs and "large" crosses while they are on the job.
"If you're a Parti Québécois strategist, you're basically sort of rubbing your hands saying this is all good," Christian Bourque, the vice-president of Léger Marketing, told CBC News.
"In the mid to long term, depending on how the debate goes about, it's hard to know if this will have a positive or negative opinion on the PQ."
In its most recent polling, Leger found that 58 per cent of Quebecers approved of the charter, with 61 per cent of francophone Quebecers, the core of PQ voters, supporting the policy.
"It's a good issue for the short term, it's a new issue and it does go to their brand of maintaining their unique identity. It's all good for that," said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, which found similar support for the charter in one of its recent polls.
"But it's not, I don't think, a long-term determinant issue of who do you want for your government. Because almost always at the end of the day, jobs and the economy typically trump everything. It's a good short-term distraction for them. But it's not, I don't think, a long-term leverage issue they can really work on."
Certainly the PQ's fortunes have recently turned for the better. In the spring, the PQ was polling in the high 20s, 10 points behind the Liberals, Bourque said, adding that satisfaction with the government was "horrific."
Boost in the polls
But with the values charter issue grabbing headlines, voter intention for the PQ has picked up five points, with overall government satisfaction increasing by 10 points.
"Looks like as opposed to focusing on whatever they promised or whatever promises they've managed to keep or their performance as a government, they want to fight based on Quebec identity," said Nik Nanos, chair of the Nanos Research Group.
"I think this is crass politics where the objective is to distil this to a ballot box question that squeezes the Coalition Avenir Quebec [CAQ], where it becomes basically a two-sided race between the Liberals and the Parti Québécois."
If CAQ support melts away because of the fight over Quebec identity, the PQ believes it will benefit, Nanos said.
And with the PQ and CAQ fighting for a lot of the same francophone vote, polls suggest that the charter issue appears to be squeezing out the CAQ.
With the charter more popular among francophones and in regions outside of Montreal, Nanos said, some could interpret the PQ as launching a bit of a "scorched earth" policy as it relates to the city, where it doesn't see any significant growth potential.
"I think what the PQ wants to do is pit a battle with the Quebec of the past — which is the Quebec off the island of Montreal —and the Quebec of the now, which is more culturally diverse, also diverse in terms of faith. The flagship for that really being the island of Montreal."
But that too also poses some political risks.
"If you want to form a majority government, that's very tough if you can't count on a few good seats on the island of Montreal," Bourque said.
Charter could put youth vote at risk
The charter has already sparked accusations of intolerance and xenophobia, and it risks alienating young Quebecers and students. Although youth are still less likely to vote, they did play a significant role as activists for the PQ in the last election.
"[The charter] doesn't sound very cool and modern to younger voters, and right now there's a shortage of newer generation sovereigntists," Bourque said. "So the impact on the youth vote may be an issue."
Meanwhile, Bozinoff said, negative reaction to the charter from the rest of Canada could begin changing opinions in Quebec.
"It's not like the old days before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle where Quebec was fairly isolated from the rest of the country in terms of the flow of information," he said. "So how everyone is reacting to this in the rest of the country will start to seep thought into Quebec. And if they're perceived to be out of step in a bad way, I think it may change public opinion there."
Bourque said the PQ may have increased its support by releasing the charter, but still trails the Liberals in the polls.
"Even if they are gaining vote share, they're not winning it away from the Liberals who are still in first place," Bourque said. "To me it says [the PQ] has won Round 1 which is, 'Should we release this or not as an actual government plan?' But Round 2 is trying to get it adopted in the national assembly, and Round 3 is making it an election issue and winning a majority government over it."