Bloc wedges back

Duceppe points to arts cuts and youth crime to argue Harper doesn't represent Quebec values. The strategy is working

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The Gazette, Sunday, September 28, 2008

If it turns out that the Conservatives fall short of a majority on election day, it will because they were beaten at their own game, wedge politics, in Quebec.

Two issues that work for them in the rest of the country, cultural cuts and their crackdown on juvenile crime, have been flipped on them in Quebec.

Neither one, on its own, is enough to account for the sharp downturn in Conservative voting intention, and a surge for the Bloc Québécois, that was apparent in all the daily tracking polls last week.

But when the two are bundled together, under the overarching Bloc theme that the Conservatives don't share Quebec values, that's trouble for Stephen Harper.

The coupling of the two issues under the values umbrella has played out in saturation media coverage and an extremely effective counterpunch by Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc. A campaign in Quebec that began with a ballot question about whether the Bloc still served a useful role in Ottawa has been transformed into one that depicts Harper's Conservatives as a threat to Quebec values.

Instead of it being about the Bloc, Harper has allowed Duceppe to make it about him. Rather than Harper saying he's delivering the goods for Quebec, Duceppe is accusing him of assaulting Quebec values. Those are two completely different frames. One works for Harper, the other works for Duceppe.

And Harper made himself an easy target with his comment about average Canadians not being concerned about artists attending "rich galas." Whether the remark was careless or calculated, it played to a media bias of Conservative insensitivity to the arts on the same day as the culture clash played out in coverage of artists staging a free concert to protest the Conservative funding cuts.

Harper made the comment in English, and perhaps catching himself as he went, declined to repeat it in French. It played out in the French media anyway, as a refusal to repeat it in French, and played to the squarehead stereotype depicted in the YouTube video put out by francophone artists, the guy who didn't understand that "phoques" were seals. Or as a newspaper cartoon later had Harper suggesting: "Phoque off!" Ouch!

But three opposition parties sharing the stage at Club Soda means three parties all vying for the same votes, and while the arts community knows how to generate sympathetic media coverage, that doesn't translate into many votes. It also leaves one party, the Conservatives, with a constituency that believes if you want to go Cuba, fine, pay your own way. In other words, the issue generates a lot of noise, but doesn't affect the lives of average voters.

The Tories' proposed crackdown on youth crime is an issue that reflects a divide in the political culture between Quebec and the rest of Canada. While it's an effective wedge issue in ROC, the Conservatives are the ones being wedged in Quebec.

Or as Duceppe put it in a speech to university students in Montreal, Harper represents "a conservative ideology that took root in the Reform Party and draws on the doctrinaire right in the United States." In other words, Harper as a clone of George W. Bush. The return of Scary Stephen and the Hidden Agenda.

But Duceppe has a problem with the speech Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois made at the same student rally, when she asserted the PQ and Bloc "are still pursuing the same dream, the independence of Quebec." That's not the Bloc message in this campaign, and gives Harper an opening to take the debate back to the fundamentals that favour him - the Conservatives in power are delivering for Quebec, which the Bloc can never do in opposition.

This theme, that the Bloc is useless, or at least had its day, has tested well in Conservative research. But then the Conservatives got carried away when they unveiled a mobile billboard outside Bloc headquarters, with Michael Fortier as their spokesman. However useless Bloc members might be, they've been elected by voters. They don't need lessons in a democracy from a guy from the Senate. Right message, wrong messenger.

In all this, the Bloc surged to as high as 40 per cent in most daily tracking polls last week, with the Conservatives sagging to the low 20s, though they remain competitive with the Bloc in the 50-seat battleground outside Montreal. There might be a more accurate and telling reflection of a mood shift in a massive Léger Marketing poll of 3,000 Quebecers due out on the TVA network tonight and in the Journal de Montréal tomorrow.

Meantime, in the run-up to this week's leaders' debates, Harper has scheduled a two-day swing through Quebec where he needs to get back on his message, and away from the Bloc's.

There is a time in every election where a good leader has to carry the entire campaign on his back. For Harper, that moment of testing is right here, right now.

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