Harper is pinning his hopes on 418

He's convinced the road to a Tory majority runs through small-town Quebec

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The Gazette, Monday, August 4, 2008

Just west of Quebec City, and just east of Resume Speed, lies the sleepy town of St. Agapit, where Stephen Harper delivered a slashing partisan speech last week, with both Stéphane Dion and Gilles Duceppe squarely in his sights.

Why would the prime minister spend an evening where the highway through town is also called Rue Principale? Because towns like St. Agapit are part of the Conservative hopes to grow from minority to majority status at the next election.

It's called their 418 strategy, after the area code for Quebec City and eastern Quebec. This is where the Conservatives established their Quebec beachhead in 2006, and have since emerged as the competitive alternative to the Bloc Québécois.

There are more seats in the 418 than in the 514 phone code on the island of Montreal, the last Liberal stronghold in the province, and the 418's seats are a lot more available to the Conservatives. The voters in the 418 are an extremely homogenous "pool of accessibles." They are predominantly small-town or rural, overwhelmingly francophone, and almost exclusively white.

In the choir of 100 or people arranged behind Harper for the St. Agapit photo op, there wasn't a single non-white face. For that matter, the speech audience of 1,500 wasn't exactly an advertisement for the Bouchard-Taylor commission's recommendations about inter-culturalism. But the people here vote, and they tend to vote together, so that when one seat in the 418 falls, most of them tend to fall in the same direction.

This, at least, is what the Conservatives are pinning many of their hopes on for the next election. It's the main reason they held their national caucus last week not in Quebec City as part of Quebec 400 celebrations, but across the St. Lawrence River in Lévis, at a convention centre and hotel so new that cable television still wasn't connected in all the rooms.

Lévis is the same town where Stephen Harper's late campaign surge was stopped by a single soundbite in January 2006, when he observed that the voters had nothing to fear from a Conservative majority, not with the courts and civil service dominated by Liberal appointees. In the subsequent media furor, the Liberals accused Harper of a hidden agenda to pack the courts and revive abortion legislation. The Conservatives fell by five points in Ontario in five days; 15 seats disappeared.

Harper wasn't making any such mistakes last week at his caucus-closing press conference in Lévis. Instead, for the second day running he threw down an election gauntlet to Dion. After daring the Liberal leader to "fish or cut bait" on an election in his St. Agapit speech Wednesday, Harper vowed Thursday that the Liberals wouldn't be permitted to turn parliamentary committees into a "kangaroo court" of inquiry into embarrassing Conservative files such as the Julie Couillard affair or the "in-and-out" campaign financing matter.

The Conservatives are convinced they have Dion on the run on his proposal for a carbon tax, which the Liberals insist will be revenue-neutral because of tax cuts, but which Harper portrays as just another new tax.

Harper went after Dion hard in his St. Agapit speech, taunting him for his same old song of always threatening an election. He dared Dion to force one if he truly wants "the real debate" he has been demanding on his carbon tax proposal. Having previously dismissed the Liberals' "Green Shift" as "crazy," a decidedly extreme characterization, Harper this time called it "complicated and almost incomprehensible."

He is not wrong about that. It takes charts and graphs to understand the Green Shift, which the Tories have gleefully called the Green Shaft. Most people probably see it that way, especially when they're filling up at the local gas station.

Anecdotally, the Conservatives are convinced that Dion's proposal is not playing well in any region of the country. Certainly not in British Columbia, where Premier Gordon Campbell's numbers are in a meltdown since his carbon tax took effect last month. Definitely not in the energy-producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. And probably not in Quebec, where there doesn't appear to be any enthusiasm for the idea, or for the leader proposing it.

This is the heart of Dion's problem. While he is definitely standing for something, and courageously so, he is making the national political question about him, rather than about the governing party. And making it about Dion is not a good idea in Quebec, least of all in the 418. He is a native son of the region, born and raised in Quebec City, but he is not a favourite son.

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