Bad news for the Bloc

Polls show the Liberals and Conservatives are gaining in Quebec at the expense of the Bloc

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Both the Liberals and Conservatives improved their voting intention in Quebec in yesterday's CROP poll, and the real news is that they both did so at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois.

While Stephane Dion and the Liberals are at 29 per cent, a nine-point convention bounce since the last CROP two months ago, and while the Conservatives are competitive again at 23 per cent, the Bloc has plummeted eight points to 34 per cent, its worst poll numbers since the gains made in the sponsorship scandal.

The really bad news for the Bloc is that the Liberals and Conservatives are not fishing for votes in what is called the same "pool of accessibles." They are both growing at the expense of the Bloc.

At these levels, Dion would be on track to win at least 20 Quebec seats, up from an all-time low of 13 in the 2006 election. Most of these gains would come in the Greater Montreal region - including the East End, South Shore and Laval - where the Liberals took the full brunt of voter anger over Adscam.

For his part, Stephen Harper has regained traction in Quebec and is within the margin of error of the 25 per cent share of the vote that yielded 10 seats here in the last election. Most of these votes are in the Quebec City region in area code 418.

While the Conservative are holding their own in 418, the Liberals are recovering in 514 on the island of Montreal and 450, the suburban ring around the city. And the rest of the province appears to be up for grabs.

It probably doesn't help Gilles Duceppe that Andre Boisclair and the Parti Quebecois are on a bad roll going into a provincial election. The same CROP poll for La Presse saw Jean Charest and his Quebec Liberals moving ahead of the PQ 37 to 34, with Mario Dumont and the ADQ at 14 per cent. Charest was seen as the better leader over Boisclair by a 29 to 22 margin, and while 56 per cent of Quebecers still think it's time for a change of government, the other 44 per cent don't.

Finally, the Liberals now trail the PQ by only 10 points in the francophone vote. Charest is getting very close to the trigger point on calling the election. And whatever problems he's had finding his feet as premier, everyone knows Charest will show up for the campaign.

Conversely, it helps Harper that Charest is on the move, and helps Charest that Harper is going better. It sounds like voodoo; it can never be quantified. It's the old saying: rouge a Quebec, bleu a Ottawa.

And while Duceppe's poll numbers bumped back up into the 40s over the summer and fall, that was largely driven by events that pounded Harper's voting intention down into the low teens, zero-seat territory. The war in southern Lebanon, mounting casualties in Afghanistan, and Quebecers' strong support for Kyoto and for gay marriage were all negatives for Harper. Not to mention Dubya's calling him Steve.

Afghanistan and climate change can still come back to bite Harper, but the other issues are now out of the domestic news cycle. And the Arar case has given Harper a very good opportunity to take his distance from the Bush administration on an issue that doesn't harm our trade interests.

As for Duceppe, it might well that his star has been slowly dimming since he declined to leave Ottawa and take the leadership of the PQ in 2005. He preferred to be the head of the branch office rather than the CEO at head office. That's a fair lifestyle choice, and he sincerely saw his duty as being in Ottawa.

But the next federal campaign, whenever it occurs, will be Duceppe's fifth since 1997, and it logically stands to be his last. The last federal leader who went five elections was a guy named Trudeau, and he came out of retirement to win his last campaign in 1980.

Duceppe used to look very sure of his footing in positioning the Bloc as the defender of Quebec's interests in the House. But since the election he has had competition from Harper and, increasingly, from Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, the Conservatives' emerging Bloc-buster who drives the party to distraction with his constant reminders that they are in eternal opposition while the Tories are delivering for Quebec.

And Duceppe has slipped up a few times on his own. Bringing the Quebecois nation thing to the floor of the House proved to be a tactical error when he got outsmarted and outflanked by Harper. Putting up $3.9 billion, as Quebec's share of federal cash, on the fiscal imbalance, has put Duceppe in the position of voting against more money for Quebec in the budget. That's why he's now saying to Harper, make me an offer, except he's not at the table, Charest is. And there's going to be a deal.

And this week, Duceppe is demanding industrial benefits from the Boeing C-17 procurement equivalent to Quebec's 60 per cent share of the aerospace industry. Bernier and Harper just blew him off by saying all regions of the country would reap the industrial benefit of being Boeing suppliers.

It's another Bloc dog that just won't hunt.

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