Dumont broke the federalism-separation polarization

Minority parliaments have worked well elsewhere in Canada; they can here, too

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Now what? Well, minority parliaments have worked well elsewhere. The Pearson years in Ottawa, two minority Houses from 1963 to 1968, produced the most sweeping legislative agenda in the second half of the 20th century. In Ontario, the minority Conservative government of Bill Davis of 1977 was the springboard to a Tory majority in 1981. Similarly, David Peterson's Liberal minority of 1985 led to his majority in 1987.

Just because no Quebec election has produced a minority since 1878 doesn't mean the National Assembly can't be managed for two or three years.

And Jean Charest's challenge could also become his opportunity. He looked liberated, as well as relieved, when he finally won his riding and went before the cameras in Sherbrooke on Monday night. Not only had he saved his seat, he had, just barely, saved his leadership and his job. Earlier in the evening, Radio-Canada had declared the defeat of a sitting premier, in a riding where the computer should have reminded them that he also trailed in 2003. Apparently, la tendance ne se maintient pas.

Charest will have to answer to the Liberal Party for an election that might have been called too soon and a sloppy campaign with a blown majority. From the day he dropped the writ, it was his election to lose, and he nearly lost it.

The election was called early to take advantage of the Parti Quebecois poll numbers cratering in January and February over Andre Boisclair's leadership. It never occurred to the Liberal brain trust that unhappy PQ voters who could never vote Liberal and dissatisfied Liberals would park their votes with Mario Dumont.

The Liberals always saw Dumont in the high teens to low 20s, taking many more votes from the PQ than themselves. But when Dumont moved into the mid and high 20s, he was clearly taking votes from the Liberals, and they were unable to adjust either their campaign or their TV advertising to take account of the Mario effect.

First, the Liberals pointed out Dumont's campaign promises didn't add up. When that didn't work, they called him a crypto-separatist. And that didn't work, either.

The Liberals kept running positive TV ads emphasizing their team strengths, when they should have run new ones attacking Dumont's credibility. Charest ran a lacklustre campaign, running on his record rather than an envisioned future, when his record was the reason the opposition parties drove dissatisfaction with the government back up to 60 per cent, a dangerous tipping point.

Finally, Charest and his handlers allowed his press corps to get way out of control, completely losing message discipline, the most important daily component of a campaign.

But once the Liberals get over their period of recriminations, they'll realize they're still in government, and government imposes the discipline of power.

As for Charest, he gets to name a cabinet, to write an inaugural address, and bring in a new budget.

All he needs, in a minority House, is one dance partner, either Dumont or Boisclair.

Neither of these guys is going to be in any hurry for an election.

Dumont needs time, as opposition leader, to build his team as a government-in-waiting. Quebecers would not elect Dumont and the no-names to government, but they did elect a Dumont opposition. His shadow cabinet can grow in the legislature - in question period opposite the government, and with interest groups who come to committees.

For Dumont, Monday night was the opening event of the next campaign. Besides the 41 ridings that he won, he finished second in another 45, the leading indicator of what could happen next. And now, when he goes on the road, Dumont will have a car and a driver, a big staff, a beautiful suite of offices in the National Assembly and even a nice office in downtown Montreal. Business leaders will host dinners for him and sign cheques to him.

For Boisclair, Monday was the PQ's worst nightmare - finishing third. The only consolation for him is that no one of any standing will want to replace him as the leader of a third party. Certainly not Gilles Duceppe or Pauline Marois. The PQ will be plunged into yet another crisis over sovereignty at a time when its option is being moved to the back burner. At 28 per cent, Boisclair is responsible for the PQ's worst showing since 1970, when it obtained 23 per cent in its first election.

For the first time since 1973, a Quebec election has not been polarized around federalism and separatism, between the Liberals and PQ.

Dumont has broken the polarization, as Stephen Harper did on the federal scene last year.

This was, indeed, a realignment election. Somehow, the people arranged to get what they wanted: a Liberal government with Dumont as the leader of the opposition, and the PQ sent back to the drawing board.

As they usually do, in their collective wisdom, the people got it right.

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