Poll numbers are whispering sweet somethings in Harper's ear

All that keeps the Liberals afloat is their stranglehold on anglophone votes

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The Gazette, Monday, May 8, 2006

They say that in the polling business there comes a point where the numbers are talking to you. In last week's CROP poll for La Presse, the numbers were definitely talking about a realignment of federal voting intentions in Quebec that has only accelerated in the three months since the election.

The Conservatives now lead the Bloc Quebecois by a 34-31 margin, with the Liberals at 15 per cent and the NDP at 13 per cent.

And this was before last week's budget, in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, and before last Friday's accord on Quebec's participation in the Canadian delegation at UNESCO, the United Nations educational and cultural organization.

Yes, these numbers are talking.

Consider: Less than six months ago, at the start of the federal campaign, Stephen Harper's Conservatives were languishing in single digits, with no immediate prospect of breaking into double digits, let alone the 20-per-cent threshold of winning a few seats in Quebec.

By election day, they had moved up to 25 per cent, which, concentrated in the 418-area-code region in and around Quebec City, proved to be a very efficient vote that delivered 10 seats to the new Conservative government.

What has happened since the election on Jan. 23? The Conservatives have moved up by nine points to 34 per cent, the Bloc has plunged 11 points to 31 per cent, and the Liberals have lost six points to 15 per cent, while the NDP has grown into double digits at 13 per cent.

Among francophones, the Liberals are in single digits at nine per cent, reduced to rubble off the island of Montreal. It is only their 48 per cent of the non-francophone vote in the Montreal region that pulls them into double digits. And even there, the Conservatives are making inroads, growing to 27 per cent.

What would this mean, in an election held today?

That's easy. These numbers would produce 35 to 40 seats for the Conservatives in Quebec, 30 to 35 seats for the Bloc and about 10 seats for the Liberals in their anglo-allo redoubt in the Montreal region.

Quebec's 75 ridings are the key to a majority in the 308-seat House, where the Conservatives have 125 seats, 30 seats short of a majority.

Again, the numbers are talking. Another 25 seats in Quebec takes the Conservatives to the doorstep of a majority. Another 30 seats gets them to the magic number of 155 in a 308-member House. Add some seats from the Atlantic, Ontario and British Columbia's Lower Mainland and you would have a majority comfortable enough to allow MPs to leave town without fear of losing a vote in the House.

The election ended the polarization between the federalist and separatist options, between the Liberals and the Bloc as joint beneficiaries of their symbiotic relationship. Where they depicted elections as a choice of country, Harper presented a choice of policies on daycare cheques and the GST cut, and a concept of federalism that respected the constitutional division of powers.

After decades of the family feud going back to the Trudeau-Levesque era, Harper is bidding to put an end to it. In this regard, he actually benefits from not being part of the family, but rather a prospective son-in-law being welcomed into it. He seems like a polite young man who speaks pretty good French and has a good job with the government.

Being taken into the family is one thing. Earning his keep is quite another. At the end of the campaign, when it was clear a Conservative breakthrough was at hand, Quebecers said that now Harper had to deliver the goods, almost as a warning of what would happen if he didn't. Failure would drive voters back into the arms of the Bloc at the federal level and the Parti Quebecois at the provincial level, triggering the winning conditions for a third referendum.

There are no winning conditions apparent today, at least not from the federal side of the house. This leaves Gilles Duceppe in a bad place. His litmus test is that the Bloc constructively supports what is good for Quebec.

Thus, by including a discussion paper on the fiscal imbalance, Harper won Duceppe's endorsement for last week's budget, insuring it will pass easily.

The paper didn't resolve the fiscal imbalance, far from it. It didn't deliver another nickel to the provinces. It simply stated the existence of a fiscal imbalance that Ottawa has previously denied.

Besides, Duceppe doesn't want an election right now. Even while the Bloc is trying to figure out what happened to them in the last election, it is still happening.

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