Harper has a new Top 3 for the fall session of Parliament

Poll results show PM must work to boost his popularity in Quebec

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The Gazette, Monday, August 28, 2006

Looking at the numbers that came back from the field last week, pollster Nik Nanos had that feeling from the film Groundhog Day - he'd been in this movie before, on election night.

His latest SES Research quarterly poll has the four major parties right where they were on Jan. 23, with the Conservatives at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 30 per cent, the NDP at 18 per cent and the Bloc Quebecois at 11 per cent. In other words, an election today would produce another minority Conservative government of about 125 seats, 30 short of a majority government.

In Quebec, the Groundhog Day effect is strikingly apparent, with the Bloc at 42 per cent, the Conservatives at 26 per cent, and the Liberals at 22 per cent, all within a point of their popular vote on election day. Significantly, the Conservatives are down nine points from a 35-per-cent showing in the SES spring quarterly in May, while the Bloc are up five points to 42 per cent and the Liberals have gained three points.

The nine-point hit that Stephen Harper has taken in Quebec can largely be attributed, in a province with an important Lebanese constituency, to his support for Israel in its war with Hezbollah. During the war, Harper was pounded mercilessly by the French-language media, a barrage that has stopped with the shaky ceasefire.

Worse for him, he's widely perceived in Quebec as being Bush's poodle. Then there's the strong opposition in Quebec to the mission in Afghanistan. Moreover, there's overwhelming support here for Kyoto. And finally, there was Harper's decision not to attend the international AIDS conference in Toronto, which dominated the news cycle two weeks ago.

That's a lot of bad news for Harper in Quebec in one poll. But the good news might be that the events are in the past. Furthermore, people don't vote on foreign-policy issues, they vote on the economy and satisfaction with the government and its perceived competence.

That being said, with the approach of the fall parliamentary session, Harper needs to get off foreign policy and back on his domestic messages.

"He needs," Nanos says, "to get back on domestic issues. He needs to get back on the brand."

Which is to say, getting back to what the Conservative government was winning acceptance for - delivering on its campaign promises, notably its top five priorities list, as the means to earning a majority next time.

Four of the top five priorities have already been adopted in the budget and other legislation. Only the health-care guarantee on waiting times for elective surgery remains, and that must be negotiated with the provinces. What is an acceptable waiting time, and when could a patient go outside the system, at public expense? That's for Health Minister Tony Clement to negotiate with his provincial colleagues, and from his experience as health minister in Ontario, no one knows these files better. He knows how many Canadians have been waiting how long for elective eye surgery. Answer: 100,000 people have been waiting an average of four months.

The health-care guarantee was seen by Canadians, in another SES Research poll for Policy Options magazine, by a margin of nearly 3-1 as by far the most important item on the top five. As Nanos said at the time: "It's health care and it's guaranteed."

It's important that Clement get a deal with the provinces so that Harper can go into the next campaign saying he delivered on his top-five check list from the last one. It goes to the core issues of trust and competence.

Another issue on which Harper must deliver, which has been called the sixth point on the check list, is an agreement on the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. While millions of eyes glaze over at this discussion, it was an important campaign promise in Quebec. Harper's breakthrough "open federalism" speech in Quebec City was built largely around his promise to answer that request from Jean Charest. With both looking at elections in 2007, their prospects in Quebec hinge to a significant degree on whether they are able to say "problem solved."

And then there's the environment, and the mega issue of climate change. The Conservatives will present a Clean Air Act when Parliament resumes on Sept. 18, as their alternative to the unattainable Kyoto emission reduction targets.

While it might not be enough to please the environmental lobbies (nothing ever is), it might be enough to persuade middle- class voters that Harper takes the issue of global warming seriously, and has a plan.

The health-care guarantee, fiscal federalism and climate change. Not the old top five. But a new top three for the fall.

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