Quebec just keeps getting better for the Tories

Conservatives have emerged as the real 'block-the-Bloc' party

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The Gazette, Monday, April 28, 2008

A Leger Marketing poll of federal and provincial voting intention in Quebec last week brought good news for Stephen Harper and Jean Charest, and bad news for Gilles Duceppe, Stéphane Dion, Pauline Marois and Mario Dumont.

At the federal level, the Leger poll of 1,000 Quebecers for Le Devoir saw the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives in a statistical tie at 31 and 29 per cent, with the Liberals at 21 per cent and the New Democrats at 12 per cent.

Provincially, the Charest Liberals continued on the rebound, growing to 37 per cent, with the Parti Québécois at 33 per cent and the Action démocratique du Québec falling out of the 20s into the teens at 18 per cent. The attitudinal data was even worse for Dumont. A leader who has always run ahead of his party, he is now aligned with it - also seen as best premier by only 18 per cent of voters, compared with 33 per cent for Charest, and 30 per cent for Marois.

Even worse for Dumont, the PQ, the third party in the legislature, is seen as the most effective opposition by a margin of 2-1 over ADQ, which is the official opposition. The inescapable conclusion is that Dumont has blown his chance with the voters to present himself as the next premier and his team as a government-in-waiting. As our mothers used to say, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

The Leger numbers would translate into another Liberal minority government, though if Charest continues to grow the Liberal francophone vote - he now trails the PQ by only seven points, 37-30 - he will soon be in majority territory. In the culture of the National Assembly, the only real question of confidence is the budget, and that has already passed. Unless Charest wants to call an election in the fall, the next opportunity for the government to fall will be the spring 2009 budget.

Federally, Leger's numbers are virtually the same as those put out by CROP at the end of last month (with the Bloc at 30 per cent, the Conservatives at 29 per cent and the Liberals at 20 per cent.)

Both the Leger and CROP are very encouraging for Harper, and very discouraging for both Duceppe and Dion.

The Bloc has now lost more than 10 points from its 42-per-cent score on election day in 2006, when it won 51 seats. Now Duceppe is saying he'll settle for a majority of Quebec's 75 seats - 38 - if he's to continue as Bloc leader beyond the next election. Does this sound like a guy counting the days till he collects his pension, or what?

Harper, in a speech at a partisan Conservative meeting last Thursday night, jumped all over this, saying that if Duceppe wanted to offer a gift of those extra seats, he'd take it.

Dion finds himself in the same predicament as he was following the CROP poll - a bad third place in Quebec and nowhere off the Island of Montreal. Leger vice-president Christian Bourque offered him no encouragement in Le Devoir, suggesting that the Conservatives' support was steady overall because of their strength outside Montreal, "where they've become the only solution for replacing the Bloc." In other words, the competitive alternative. Or, to turn a Liberal slogan from the Chrétien years against them, the Conservatives have become the "block-the-Bloc" party in ROQ, the Rest of Quebec.

ROQ is everything outside Montreal's 514 area code, including the bedroom communities of Laval and the South Shore in the 450 area code, the ring around the city.

Harper was in Laval at lunch last Thursday, giving a speech at one of those suburban banquet halls you can only find with the help of Mapquest. The text was ordinary and the delivery was unusually flat. But the message was interesting as a preview of what Harper will be telling Quebecers at the next election.

Every politician in government has a riff that goes, "promises made, promises kept." In Harper's case, on Quebec, he recited the improvement in federal-provincial relations, the role for Quebec at UNESCO, and the resolution of the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, all in fulfillment of his promise of open federalism in his Quebec City speech of the last campaign.

Heads were nodding, and possibly nodding off, at this part of the speech, but they snapped to attention when he said: "We've recognized the Québécois nation within a united Canada," referring to the 2006 all-party resolution in the House.

Harper didn't make any more of it than that. He didn't have to. A guy from Alberta got that for Quebec, ending 40 years of argument going back to Daniel Johnson and Pierre Trudeau, and helping to turn the page on the enduring sense of grievance from the death of the Meech Lake Accord. It's hard to quantify, but it was hard not to observe a visible sense of approval in a room.

He then went off on a long economic spiel before circling back to this theme in his closing.

Unlike the Bloc and the Liberals, he said, "we don't want to revive the old quarrels between the separatists and the centralizers."

It's the first Quebec theme of the next campaign.

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