Liberals will find it hard to help elect Marois

It's against their nature and their history to vote for the separatist leader

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The Gazette, Friday, August 31, 2007

Another day, another poll, this one from CROP with the first serious take on Quebec public opinion since the budget flap in the National Assembly in June.

The good news for Jean Charest is that his government's approval rating has gone up eight points since then, to 44 per cent. That's still a pretty weak number, but it's an improvement, reflecting both the strong economy and Charest's good sense in going off the air for the summer.

The bad news is that only 22 per cent of Quebecers think Charest would be the best premier of Quebec, as opposed to 37 per cent for Pauline Marois and 25 per cent for Mario Dumont. In other words, Charest is the last choice for premier, and he is the premier, and has been for the last 41/2 years.

The news doesn't get any better for the Liberals when it comes to voting intention. An election would return another minority government, but of a different colour, with the Parti Quebecois at 33 per cent, the ADQ at 29 per cent and the Liberals stuck in third place at 27 per cent. Among francophones, the Liberals are the choice of just 20 per cent, only one French-speaking voter in five, compared with 38 per cent for the PQ and 32 per cent for the ADQ. In an election, the Liberals can cover a 10-point spread in the francophone vote, but that's pushing it. For them to be down 18 points to the PQ and 12 points to the ADQ means they're out of the game in francophone ridings.

Which brings us to the Charlevoix by-election on Sept. 24, in which Charest very elegantly offered Marois a free pass to the legislature by deciding not to field a Liberal candidate against her. Except that Mario wouldn't play, and is running Conrad Harvey, who came within 1,600 votes of unseating the PQ's Rosaire Bertrand, who stepped down to make way for Marois.

Charest is extending the same parliamentary courtesy to Marois as he did to her predecessor, André Boisclair, in east-end Anjou last summer. It is in Charest's interest to get Marois into the legislature this fall, so he can have her as a real rather than an imagined opponent.

But while Charest has posed a fine gesture, it is by no means an inviolable parliamentary convention. Indeed, René Lévesque put Robert Bourassa through the inconvenience of a hotly contested by-election in South Shore Bertrand in 1985. On the federal scene, Pierre Trudeau declined to give Brian Mulroney a free pass to the House of Commons in 1983, and sent nearly a dozen cabinet ministers into Central Nova to campaign against him.

And Marois, it's fair to point out, isn't even coming in as leader of the opposition, but as leader of the third party in the legislature.

Under the circumstances, why wouldn't Dumont run a candidate against her, especially when he is trying to dislodge the PQ as the natural alternative to the Liberals?

And Charest, having pledged not to run a candidate against her, has been reduced to the peevish comment that Dumont is demonstrating his lack of maturity and judgment, the same line he used with devastating effect on Boisclair. The difference is that in Boisclair's case, it was demonstrably true. But Dumont has been 36 years old since he was 21.

But now the question becomes, what of the Liberal vote in Charlevoix? Local Liberal organizers are saying they won't mind if their voters go to Marois, and Mario is crying foul.

It's not just the Rhino or Commie vote we're talking about here, but the bourgeois Liberal vote, which has been conditioned to voting against the separatists. Even though Marois has put the PQ's option on ice, she's still the leader of that party, and many Liberals will be inclined to vote for Mario and his autonomist-federalist option.

A look at the numbers from the general election suggests Marois should take nothing for granted. The PQ got 9,099 votes there last March, the ADQ's Harvey won 7,436 votes, while the Liberals received 6,541 votes.

Even with 40 per cent turnouts in by-elections, and even in the absence of a Liberal candidate, you can hardly expect the Liberal vote to stay home.

And why would the Liberals, apart from Charest's kind offer of a free ride, be organizing for the PQ? Well, because if Mario's guy wins, then Dumont gets another momentum surge, more confirmation he's premier-in-waiting.

Meantime, the leadership crisis in the PQ, a party that thrives on leadership dramas, wouldn't be difficult to imagine. All the hard-liners, who've been told to shut up, would be back. And Charest would be getting another year in the legislature while the PQ sorted out the mess.

Nevertheless, the Liberals working for the PQ? Robert Bourassa must be spinning in his grave.

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