Attacks on Dumont's federalism fall flat

Many Quebecers identify with the ADQ's constitutional position because it is close to their own

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Having supported the Yes side in the 1995 referendum, Mario Dumont then called for a moratorium on referendums.

Thus, while he might vote Yes in a future referendum, he wouldn't be in favour of calling one. Which is to say that while he might vote against the adoption of a referendum question by the National Assembly, he would then join the Yes committee.

Well, there's a certain logic to this.

Jean Charest has tried to flush Dumont out, saying he can't be "between two chairs." The Liberals, frustrated by Dumont's effortless rise in the polls, spent much of last week trying to depict Dumont as a crypto-separatist.

It isn't working.

For one thing, Dumont has name recognition. For another, voters have a comfort level with his position on the national question.

As he explains it, he's an autonomist, seeking more powers for Quebec within the Canadian federation. Or, as comedian Yvon Deschamps famously formulated it: "un Quebec libre dans un Canada uni."

For voters switching from the Parti Quebecois because they can't support Andre Boisclair, Dumont is a comfortable place to park. He has nationalist credentials from supporting the Yes in the last referendum, but he's aligned with the vast majority of Quebecers who don't want another one.

So he's borrowing votes from the PQ in the east end of Montreal, where his rise to 22 per cent in last Friday's Leger Marketing poll has actually propelled the Liberals into a 32-29 lead over the PQ.

But Dumont has his own constituency off the island of Montreal. In the ROQ - the rest of Quebec - his base is largely small town and rural, with the exception of the Quebec City region.

This is the bleu vote, and it has been a growing factor since Stephen Harper's breakthrough of 10 Quebec seats in the January 2006 federal election. Eight of those 10 seats were in the 418 area in and around Quebec City, where Dumont is also expected to make gains, this time at the expense of the Liberals rather than the PQ.

This conservative vote in "Quebec profond" is decidedly less progressive than Montreal, particularly on social issues such as same-sex marriage and reasonable accommodation of religious and ethnic minorities.

Dumont's rise and Boisclair's decline in the polls have resulted in the campaign conversation being about different versions of federalism, rather than another referendum on sovereignty.

Every Quebec election since 1973 has polarized around the so-called national question. But in this campaign, Dumont is breaking through more than three decades of Liberal-PQ polarization, just as Harper did last year in breaking the co-dependency of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois.

While Charest and Dumont have been debating their different versions of federalism, both have virtually ignored Boisclair. But both Charest and Dumont are comfortable with what Harper has termed open federalism, which is actually classical federalism - it respects the constitutional division of powers and recognizes asymmetrical aspects of Quebec's role in the federation. Thus, a role for Quebec in the Canadian delegation at UNESCO, and recognition of Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. Still to come, cash for the fiscal imbalance in the federal budget on March 19, one week before the election.

Harper's not on the ballot, but in a way, as Chantal Hebert has written, this election is a test of open federalism. In last week's Leger poll, the two federalist brands together came in at 61 per cent, while the sovereignist franchise stood at only 29 per cent.

But paradoxically, it's because of Dumont's rising popularity that he gets in trouble when the debate turns serious on the issues. He still hasn't responded to Charest's challenge to estimate the cost of his program, telling the media to get back to him after the federal budget when he has seen the fiscal-imbalance number. He can expect the Liberals to cost his platform for him, and before next week's debate.

The Liberals also have a huge advantage of their team over Dumont's slate of ADQ candidates. After all, the Liberals are in government and the team starts with their cabinet, and a strong field of 44 female candidates in 125 ridings. Dumont is essentially carrying his team, which is untested, unknown and prone to the kind of right-wing outbursts that plagued Harper in the 2004 campaign.

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