Bloc is worried

The surge of the ADQ provincially could translate into more Tory votes nationally

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The Gazette, Monday, April 2, 2007

When the Parti Quebecois finished third in both the popular vote and seats in last Monday's Quebec election, the Bloc Quebecois took a big collateral hit.

The PQ fell to third place with 28 per cent of the vote and 36 seats, its worst showing since 1970 - its first election under the founding father, Rene Levesque. Not only did Mario Dumont, with 31 per cent of the vote, become leader of the opposition with 41 seats, he finished second in another 45 ridings - a leading indicator of things to come.

None of which is good news for Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc.

Just as in 2006 Stephen Harper broke through after four federal elections being polarized in Quebec between the Liberals and the Bloc, so Dumont's great achievement in 2007 was to break nearly four decades of polarization between the Quebec Liberals and the PQ.

In 2006, Harper made a beachhead of 10 seats in Quebec by giving voters something to think about ($100 a month family-allowance cheques and cuts to the GST) and a respectable place to go (open federalism). In 2007, Dumont walked in Harper's modest footprint around Quebec City, and left a much larger footprint of his own.

Dumont is an autonomist, not a sovereignist; his votes are on the right, not the left; his voters are in the regions, not Montreal.

That's a footprint Harper would love to follow, as a prime minister who has recognized Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada, addressed the fiscal imbalance and promised to limit the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Then, Harper is obviously on the right, not the left; and his potential for growth is stronger in the regions than in Montreal.

The fit between the Conservatives and the ADQ is pretty much an overlay of the federal electoral map (75 Quebec seats) on the provincial one (125 seats in the National Assembly).

For the Conservatives, the growth opportunity is in the 50 seats out of the Montreal region - besides the 10 they won in the last election, they finished second in dozens more.

These 50 ridings will be the critical Quebec battleground in the next election. The Liberals aren't competitive in most of these ridings, which even if they split evenly between the Conservatives and the Bloc would give Harper another 15 seats, and take him to the threshold of a majority, which he could cross in Ontario.

The good news for the federal Liberals is that they are recovering to pre-sponsorship scandal levels in and around Montreal.

The really good news for federalism is that for the first time, both the Liberals and Conservatives are growing in Quebec at the expense of the Bloc, rather than each other. The Liberals are regaining strength in the Montreal region, the Conservatives in the rest of the province.

What has happened to the Bloc in the last year is that a party of grievance has been replaced by a party in government. Every time a Bloc MP stands in question period and asks about a Quebec issue from aerospace to forestry to aid for agriculture, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier is in their face with a reply that while the Bloc gets zero done for Quebecers the Conservatives are delivering the merchandise.

You can't see this on television, but in the House, it drives Bloc members to distraction. Not for nothing does the PM's office call Bernier their "Bloc buster." He is the rising Quebec star of this government.

In only a year, Harper has taken Bloc-supported files such as the Quebecois nation, the fiscal imbalance and funding for Kyoto targets off the table. In effect, Harper has pulled the rug out from under the Bloc.

And increasingly, one hears about the Bloc, "What are they doing there?"

Perhaps the Bloc will rally in the next federal election, whether it's this year, or next, or the year after that. Perhaps the natural instinct for checks and balances between Ottawa and Quebec will kick in. The voters might counter the Mario effect on the autonomist right with a Bloc effect on the sovereignist left.

But don't count on it. Meanwhile, Duceppe, as the leader of the third party in Ottawa, is contemplating the possibility of becoming the leader of the third party in Quebec. You sure wouldn't pay people for career advice like this.

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