Throne Speech puts Dion behind 8 ball

With Bloc wanting an election, Liberals have a decision to make

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The Gazette, Friday, October 12, 2007

When Gilles Duceppe announced his five non-negotiable conditions for the Throne Speech, he lobbed the question of confidence in the minority government into Stéphane Dion's court at precisely the worst moment for the Liberal leader.

Pounded by the disastrous by-election results in Quebec, reeling from his own crisis of confidence within Liberal ranks, Dion is in no position to push the Conservatives over the edge in any votes on the Throne Speech, the first of which will come next Thursday.

While Dion has been trying to find a way in from this ledge, Stephen Harper has been daring him to jump. Not only would the Throne Speech be a question of confidence, the prime minister declared at his news conference last week, but nearly everything in it would be as well, so as to not obstruct Parliament going forward.

Thus, even if Dion avoids an election on the Throne Speech, he's threatened with one on its contents as each bill comes to a vote in the House. Dion's unhappy choice is to force an election at the worst time for him, or stay in the House as an opposition leader unable to oppose. All things considered, discretion is the better part of valour.

Dion himself acknowledged as much when he turned up for his own press conference on Tuesday, after a week of silence. As he also acknowledged, it would be unusual, given the bad news of the last three weeks, if the Liberals didn't take a hit in the polls.

And they did. In a Decima poll released Tuesday, the Liberals were down to 28 per cent nationally, a drop of three points in a week, with the Conservatives opening up a seven-point lead.

For Dion, the good news is that at 35 per cent, Harper keeps bumping his head against the glass ceiling of the Conservatives' 36-per-cent score in the last election, four points short of secure majority territory. The prime minister is quite right to suggest an early election would return another minority House.

But the bad news for Dion, the really bad news, were the Decima numbers out of Quebec. The Bloc Québécois were at 35 per cent, the Conservatives at 27 per cent and the Liberals at 14 per cent.

At this level province-wide, the Liberals have fallen to single digits off the island of Montreal. Quite simply, the Conservatives have traded places with the Liberals as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc in the 50 off-island ridings. Outside the Gatineau and Eastern Townships, the Liberals aren't even competitive, and would lose their deposits in most of those seats.

The party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chrétien has fallen on hard times in Quebec. This is no fault of Dion's. The Liberals have been in gradual decline in Quebec for the last quarter-century. The patriation of the constitution without Quebec's assent in 1982, the death of Meech Lake in 1990 and the corrosive effects of the sponsorship scandal in the 2004 and 2006 elections have all taken a serious toll on Liberal fortunes in Quebec.

During the three elections of the Chrétien era, the Liberals held their own in Quebec not just because of the leader, but because of the polarization between them and the Bloc, to the benefit of both parties. In this symbiotic relationship, the Bloc got the nationalist vote, while the Liberals got the federalist vote. It worked for them both.

But then in the 2006 election, Harper established his Quebec beachhead of 10 seats, depolarizing the vote to the detriment of both the Bloc and the Liberals.

The Bloc hasn't been the same since. In the House, the Bloc has been outflanked by the Conservatives on Quebec issues on everything from the fiscal imbalance to the Québécois nation. Not only is Harper perceived as delivering the goods, the Bloc is a party of grievance largely deprived of its raison d'être.

Having just lost one seat in the Quebec by-elections and very nearly lost another, Duceppe's timing for ultimatums on the Throne Speech seems quite curious. Like Dion, he should have an interest in keeping this House going.

So what gives? Well, Duceppe evidently thinks he would limit his losses in a fall election. He would also be clearing the federal decks for Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois to trigger a Quebec election over the budget next spring. Finally, he's clearing a path for his own departure. The next election will be Duceppe's fifth, and last, as Bloc leader.

So he has shifted the burden of propping up the government from his shoulders to Dion's. And while Dion struggles with his decision, Duceppe is clearly at peace with his own.

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