Duceppe is feeling frisky

The Bloc Quebecois is making wild promises to Quebec City and spoiling for an election after polls show it's back on top

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 25, 2006

In Quebec City last weekend, Gilles Duceppe solemnly announced the capital of an independent Quebec would be, uh, Quebec City, which has always been the capital of Quebec.

He also announced a timetable for independence, declaring Quebec would be a sovereign state by 2015. Although, you wonder how he's going to get there, since he leads the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament, not the Parti Quebecois in the National Assembly. That's the job he turned down in the spring of 2005 because, as he said at the time, "my duty is here."

He had more to offer Quebec City, promising that a United Nations agency on cultural diversity would be located there. Really? Generally, it's the UN that determines the locations of its agencies, such as UNESCO, its cultural agency that is located in, um, Paris. Just for fun, he threw in city-wide high-speed Internet access.

But the real crowd-pleaser at the Bloc's national council was Duceppe's promise of a high-speed rail link between Quebec City and New York. Not even Bombardier has thought of that one. How much would it cost? What would be the route through the White Mountains of New Hampshire? What would the Americans have to say about it? Who would operate it? Via Rail operates only in Canada, and Amtrak has enough money-losing routes in the United States. Is there any demand for such a service? None whatsoever.

But Quebec City is a government town that likes nothing better than talk of big projects, especially ones that enhance its international standing. For Quebec City, losing out to Vancouver as the Canadian candidate for the 2010 Winter Olympics was a bitter blow to its civic pride. And les Quebecois are nothing if not proud, especially when comparing their city to Montreal.

With a view to Quebec City's 400th anniversary in 2008, politicians have been competing in extravagant promises to win the favour of the locals. In his famous open-federalism speech in Quebec on Dec. 19, Stephen Harper promised more than a deal on the fiscal imbalance and a place for Quebec at UNESCO. He also promised to expand the Lesage Airport, as if a bigger terminal would attract more flights. He also latched on to an old file about repainting the Quebec Bridge, once a wonder of engineering but now in need of sprucing up. Problem is, the bridge is owned by CN, not the government, and repainting would cost about $100 million that CN doesn't have to spend on it. The main issue is environmental - in blowtorching the old paint, they would have to find a way of capturing the chips before they fell into the St. Lawrence River.

Anything involving the pride of Quebec City voters is fair game, including the closing of the local zoo last year, and the closing of a Canada Post sorting depot, even though it has been demonstrated that no local jobs would be lost in the move.

Duceppe is trying to get back in the bidding for the favour of the Quebec City region, where the Bloc lost eight of 10 seats to the Conservatives.

He's also feeling frisky again, in threatening to defeat the Harper government over the Clean Air Act, and particularly if it fails to deliver the goods on the fiscal imbalance.

Duceppe even has a number - $3.9 billion - that he wants Ottawa to hand over to Quebec. It's a number he just made up, but he told Jean Charest that's the number he must hold out for, and that the Bloc will be watching.

Presumably, if there isn't $3.9 billion to be transferred to Quebec in the 2007 budget, Duceppe would then force a spring election (right in the middle of an expected provincial election; yeah, right). But he's setting the bar at an impossibly high level. Something like $1 billion would be enough for Stephen Harper and Charest to say "problem solved."

Duceppe is throwing his weight around again because his poll numbers have recovered to the mid-40s, while Harper's support in Quebec has cratered into the mid-teens. Two polls last week both put the Bloc at 44 per cent, and the bleus at 16 and 17 per cent.

That's the reason, and the only one, for Duceppe's sabre-rattling. In Quebec City, he's trying to recover market share. In the rest of Quebec, he already has.

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