Happy birthday, Prime Minister

A poll showing the Tories in a dead heat with the Bloc is good news for Harper

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The Gazette, Thursday, May 1, 2008

As he turned 49 yesterday, Stephen Harper received a gift from the authoritative CROP poll, which showed the Conservatives in a virtual tie with the Bloc Québécois in Quebec voting intention, and the Liberals collapsing to fourth place among francophones.

The federal findings were buried under a much bigger story in La Presse on Jean Charest's Liberals moving to majority territory provincially, at 38 per cent to 29 per cent for the Parti Québécois, with Mario Dumont and the ADQ cratering to 17 per cent.

But CROP's take on the federal side is at least as significant in that it might have finally foreclosed the possibility of a spring election. While Harper's Conservatives are off two points from last month to 27 per cent, the Bloc has dropped two points to a virtual tie at 28 per cent, with the Liberals stable at 20 per cent, and the NDP growing three points to 17 per cent.

This is the first time in memory that the Bloc has dropped below 30 per cent. At 28 per cent, it is 14 points below its 42 per cent score in the 2006 election. Stated another way, one Bloc voter in three has moved away from it.

And when you look at the key francophone demographic, 85 per cent of the voting pool, the news is simply devastating for Stéphane Dion and the Liberals. The Bloc is at 33 per cent in this segment, the Conservatives at 28 per cent, the NDP at 18 per cent and the Liberals at 13 per cent. Yikes.

Looking inside the regional numbers, you see the dimensions of Dion's predicament off the Island of Montreal.

In the Quebec City region, area code 418, the Conservatives are poised for a regional sweep at 45 per cent, with the Bloc at 24 per cent, the NDP at 16 per cent and the Liberals at 10 per cent. One voter in 10 supports the Liberals in their leader's hometown.

In the suburban 450 ring around Montreal, the Bloc is at 31 per cent, the Conservatives at 30 per cent, with the NDP and Liberals tied at 16 per cent. This means the Liberals are out of the game, both in Laval and the South Shore.

And in the rest of Quebec, the Bloc is at 31 per cent, the Conservatives at 25 per cent, the NDP at 17 per cent and the Liberals at 14 per cent.

Only on the Island of Montreal do the Liberals take a lead, and it's based entirely on their stranglehold on the western half of the island, where their anglophone and allophone votes kick in. On the island, the Liberals lead the Bloc 34 to 22 per cent, with the Conservatives at 19 per cent. But it's the non-francophone vote that provides the margin, with the Liberals leading the Conservatives 50 to 21 per cent in that linguistic segment. This is the vote that delivers West Island seats, including Dion's own riding in St. Laurent, to the Liberals.

With numbers like these, the Liberals are looking at 10 or 12 seats in Quebec, and certainly no more than the 13 they won in 2006. The NDP's Tom Mulcair would probably retain Outremont, but while the NDP vote off the island is on the rise at the expense of the Bloc, it isn't climbing enough to deliver any more seats.

With numbers like these, neither Dion nor Duceppe should be in any hurry to force an election. Certainly there has been no sense of election fever this week as the House returned from a spring break.

In question period, the Liberals have tried to focus on the fiscal framework this week, suggesting the Conservatives have squandered the surplus and are tipping Ottawa back toward a deficit.

That argument doesn't have any traction, because it isn't going to happen, since a deficit is now an unacceptable outcome in Canada.

The second case Dion has been making recently is an argument for a carbon tax to fight global warming. This undoubtedly has intellectual merit, but it's a very hard sell when the price of gas at the pump is already $1.30 a litre, or more than $5 a gallon. In the U.S. presidential race, the price of gas has emerged in the last two weeks as the No. 1 issue in the campaign, which is why Barack Obama had a news conference at a gas station in Indiana the other day.

So, no spring election. Harper might have preferred an election. But then again, he's prime minister. That's not such a bad deal on any birthday.

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