Mario Dumont's decline started on election night

His ungracious speech told Quebecers the ADQ leader is a sore winner

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, May 5, 2008

In retrospect, Mario Dumont's problems might have begun on election night last year, when he badly misjudged the occasion. Rather than giving a gracious and generous speech, calling for all parties to work together in a minority legislature, he delivered a mincing and sombre address.

He'd had a huge night, vaulting from a distant third to official opposition, at 41 seats to the Liberals' 48, a huge opportunity. His time as premier-in-waiting began that night, and in that role a sense of occasion, a touch of class, is crucial. Someone forgot to tell him the campaign was over. If there's one thing voters appreciate less than a sore loser, it's a sore winner. You can look this up under Claude Ryan and referendum night in 1980. The seeds of his defeat in the 1981 election were sown in his victory harangue the previous year.

It was precisely the moment when Jean Charest finally showed up, having been missing in action for most of the campaign. He knew that while he'd been given a serious wakeup call, he'd also been granted a reprieve. After all, when he woke up the next morning, he was still premier of Quebec, and Dumont was only leader of the opposition.

Charest had some very bad moments after that, notably during last June's episode over the budget, when Dumont was making reckless noises about an election. Which, Charest said angrily, was the proof "minority governments don't work." To which the voters replied: Deal with it.

Charest's low moment came in last September's CROP poll, when the Liberals reached an historic nadir of 24 per cent (and only 15 per cent in the francophone vote). The poll was Dumont's high water mark at 34 per cent, to 30 per cent for the Parti Québécois.

Eight months later, Dumont's support has been reduced by exactly half. Last week's CROP put his ADQ at 17 per cent, with the PQ steady at 29 per cent, and Charest's Liberals in majority territory at 38 per cent. An election today would not be a competitive three-way race, and would return the kind of Charest majority we saw in 2003.

Dumont would win about five seats, as he did then, all of them in the Quebec City region, his base. And for the first time ever, Dumont's approval rating trails his party's voting intention. He's seen as best premier by only 16 per cent of respondents, compared to 30 per cent for Pauline Marois and 32 per cent for Charest. As for Dumont's team, in another poll by Léger Marketing, the PQ is seen as the more effective opposition by a 2-1 margin, even though it has been reduced to third-party status in the National Assembly.

Charest's recovery has been most remarkable among francophone voters, where the Liberals now stand at 32 per cent, only two points behind the PQ at 34 per cent and 13 points ahead of Dumont at 19 per cent.

In a two-way race, which is what we're looking at now, the Liberals can cover a six-point francophone deficit and still win a majority in the 125-seat legislature. In the regional breakouts of the CROP poll, the Liberals have a 2-1 lead over the PQ in Montreal, and lead by a 35-30 margin in the bellwether bedroom communities of the 450 region north and south of the city. The Liberals also lead in the Quebec City 418 area by 35-29-25 over the ADQ and PQ and are virtually tied with the PQ in the rest of the province, 34-35, with the ADQ out of the game at 16 per cent.

It's precisely because Charest is in majority territory that there isn't going to be an election this year. The opposition parties have already missed their window with the budget, the only non-confidence vote of the year in the culture of the National Assembly.

Charest could visit the lieutenant-governor any time he wishes and ask for an election, but that would be seen as a cynical and transparent ploy. He could perhaps go in the fall, on the pretext of asking for a majority to deal with a slowing economy, but the voters would probably see through that, too. Moreover, the voters don't mind minority government, when it's a functional one, as in Quebec for the last year and in Ottawa for the last two. It's a way of keeping the government on a very short leash. Charest calls it "co-habitation," and it seems to be working for him.

More likely, Charest will choose his moment to be defeated in the legislature on his 2009 budget, and could even govern to 2010.

The only downside for Charest in all this is that he runs the risk of peaking too soon. As negatives go, he'll take it.

 
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