Harper inches back to Charest

The PM seems to realize he needs the Liberal machine to win in Quebec

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In an interview in Policy Options magazine today, Stephen Harper comments carefully but revealingly on his relations with Jean Charest and Mario Dumont.

Harper's special relationship with Charest during the prime minister's first year in office has clearly been effected by the minority Quebec government, with Dumont as opposition leader.

"I think a minority situation in the National Assembly is not easy for any Quebec premier concerning his relations with Ottawa, and that's presently the situation in which we find ourselves," Harper said.

Then he added: "At the same time I think the country is well served when a strong federalist is premier of Quebec."

That's a very interesting and important nuance, because in that sense he can be talking only about Charest, not Dumont. Asked about the state of his relations with Dumont, who said in December that if elected he would seek more autonomy for Quebec, Harper's response was equally calibrated.

"I can only say I've known Mr. Dumont for a long time," Harper said. "He supported the Conservative Party in the elections of 2004 and 2006. But the reality is that the Conservative Party is a mix of allegiances, finding support in both the Quebec Liberal Party and the Action démocratique. That's the reality. We have to continue to have good relations with both camps."

And then he said it again:

"At the same time, as I've just said, the country is well served by a Quebec premier who strongly supports the unity of Canada."

Again, he can be talking only about Charest.

You can be sure that these comments will be closely read in Charest's office, which will welcome them, because there is some serious fence-mending to be done between Harper and Charest.

There is no doubt that the special relationship between Harper and Charest is a thing of the past. Charest broke it off in the Quebec election last March when he took $700 million of extra equalization money from Ottawa, meant to redress the fiscal imbalance, and used it for a tax cut, without giving Harper a heads-up. Then the Quebec election, resulting in a minority legislature with Dumont in a leading role, dictated a further cooling of relations with Charest.

Gone are the heady days of private meetings and and joint announcements between Harper and Charest. And as long as Dumont's star was rising, it made sense for Harper to have a foot planted firmly in both camps.

The Dumont wave of last summer was one that Harper could surf on. However, Dumont's political ground game has always been limited to the 418 area code in and around Quebec City. With his poll numbers tanking since the fall, Dumont has lost his coattails in the Quebec regions. The Big Red Machine, entirely controlled by Charest, is the only federalist political machine that covers the entire province. And in close campaigns, a ground game is always worth three to five points on voting day.

This is something for Harper and his campaign advisers to take very seriously, especially in light of a CROP poll last week that shows the Conservative losing altitude in Quebec.

CROP showed the Bloc Québécois up five points in two months to 36 per cent, the Conservatives down four points to 27 per cent, the Liberals at 20 per cent, and the NDP at 13 per cent.

The Liberals were ahead in Montreal, the Conservatives in Quebec City, and the Bloc everywhere else in Quebec. But the key demographic was the francophone vote, with the Bloc at 42 per cent, the Conservatives at 27 per cent, the NDP at 13 per cent, and the Liberals at 12 per cent - a very bad number for Stéphane Dion, putting the Liberals right out of the race outside Montreal.

There are 50 seats off the island of Montreal that hold the key to Harper's hopes of graduating to a majority government.

When the Conservatives were tied with the Bloc at 31 per cent two months ago, that meant they were looking at 30 seats off the island. But 27 per cent is a very different number, that would produce no more than 15 Conservative seats, four more than now. There's no majority in that.

On the second anniversary of his taking office, Harper still hopes the road to a majority lies through Quebec. He would be well advised to make things right with Charest.

Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Lawrence Cannon, himself a big Quebec Liberal, has sent an important signal in crediting Charest with persuading Harper to change his mind and decouple the $1-billion Community Development Trust fund from the budget so that the money could start flowing to the provinces right away rather than being contingent on budget approval. It passed the House in a heartbeat yesterday morning. Noted with approval in Quebec City.

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