Bad news for Stephen Harper

Liberals and the Bloc could squeeze Tories out of contention in Quebec

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The Gazette, Friday, October 20, 2006

At first glance, the EKOS poll in La Presse last Saturday looked like another one of those stand-still surveys, with the Conservatives at 36 per cent nationally, the same score as on election day, with the Liberals up a touch from Jan. 23 to 32 per cent.

But when you looked at the regional breakouts, the poll spelled serious trouble for Stephen Harper in Quebec, where the Tories were down seven points from election day to 17 per cent, the Liberals at 21 per cent and the Bloc Quebecois up two points from its election score to 44 per cent.

A poll by Strategic Counsel in the Globe and Mail bore even worse tidings for the Tories, showing them and the Liberals tied at 32 per cent nationally, with the NDP at 17 per cent and the Green Party moving up to nine per cent. In Quebec, the poll had the Conservatives at 16 per cent, with the Liberals at 28 per cent and the Bloc 44 per cent.

At 16 or 17 per cent, the Conservatives would be fortunate to retain any of the 10 seats they won here on election day. At 20 per cent, they would be lucky to hold on in two or three ridings in the Quebec City region. It's only when the percentages climb into the mid-20s that they start to pay real dividends in seats, especially when the vote is clustered, as it was in the campaign in the area around Quebec City.

In his honeymoon with Quebecers last spring, Harper had moved smartly into the mid-30s in some polls, tying the Bloc, which was on a slide, while the Liberals melted into the teens, and into single digits off the island of Montreal, completely out of the game in a key battleground for 50 seats.

Those days are a memory for Harper. And if the Conservatives let the Liberals back into the game, the electorate could be repolarized into a choice between the Liberals representing the federalists and the Bloc as the champions of sovereignty. This was the case in the previous four elections going back to 1993, when the Liberals and Bloc, to their mutual benefit, successfully made the ballot question a matter of country.

While Harper is holding his own in other regions in the EKOS survey - dominant in the West, competitive in Ontario, and, surprisingly, 10 points ahead in the Liberals' Atlantic bastion - it's Quebec that holds the key to his hopes for a majority government. And if he is seen as going nowhere in Quebec, that could hurt him Ontario, where the voters prefer governments with a presence from Quebec.

What accounts for the Conservative slide, and the modest growth of Liberal fortunes in Quebec, in the EKOS poll? The second part of the question is easier to answer; the Liberals are in a leadership campaign and even though leaderless, parties generally get a bounce from a competitive leadership race like this one.

Three of the four leading contenders - Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Stephane Dion - are all strong performers in French. With their convention set for Montreal at the end of November, and the prospect of an exciting race after the first ballot, the Liberals stand to gain more ground.

As for the Tories, there's an apparent cleavage between their agenda and public opinion in Quebec on at least three issues: Afghanistan, Kyoto and same-sex marriage. And a fourth, if you want to count George W. Bush, with whom it doesn't pay to be seen around here.

The mission to Afghanistan is popular in Quebec for its humanitarian and nation-building aspects, which is why the Bloc supports it with reservations. But the counter-insurgency against the Taliban is another matter in a province where anti-war sentiment runs deep. The opposition to the mission in Afghanistan might intensify next year, when Quebec's Royal 22e Regiment, the Van Doos, go to Afghanistan for a tour of very dangerous duty in the Kandahar region. Images of francophone soldiers being shipped home in coffins might further destabilize Harper's position in Quebec.

As for Kyoto, Quebecers don't know the specifics of the accord's emissions-reductions targets any better than other Canadians, but they are more attached to it than any other region of the country.

And same-sex marriage is a settled issue in Quebec. It's one thing for the Conservatives to keep a campaign promise to hold a free vote on a resolution on whether the issue should be reopened, and another for the government to send up a trial balloon about a bill to protect traditional marriage in the event the motions fails, as is virtually certain to be the case. Harper wasted no time knocking that one down hard, but it didn't pass unnoticed.

At 16 or 17 per cent, Harper would be nowhere in Quebec. Below 20 per cent, he's right out of the game, and below the mid-20s, he's not really in it.

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