Harper had Quebec in his grasp, but he blew it

By running a painfully bad campaign, Conservatives lost their chance at majority

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Saturday, October 11, 2008

This is an election that could be decided over Thanksgiving dinner in Ontario. But in Quebec, it has already been decided - the Bloc Québécois is back, big time.

Gilles Duceppe owes it all to Stephen Harper and the really stupid campaign the Conservatives have run in Quebec, which has turned a competitive race with the Bloc into a rout in the key 50-seat battleground outside Montreal.

Tied with the Bloc in the low 30s in provincial polls as recently as two weeks ago, the Conservatives have since plummeted 10 points, giving almost all of them up to the Bloc. Every point is thus worth two points, creating a huge Bloc spread of up to 20 points that will yield a lock on 50 seats for Duceppe on Tuesday, and perhaps as many as 55.

The Sygma poll in yesterday's La Presse tells the story: Bloc 42 per cent, Conservatives 22 per cent, Liberals 20 per cent, NDP 13 per cent.

That's exactly the percentage of votes the Bloc obtained in 2006, to win 51 seats. The Liberals, meanwhile, are where they were then with 21 per cent, which yielded 13 seats, which is about what they will come in with on Tuesday, all of them in the Montreal region. Their modest resurgence as the competitive federalist party in the Greater Montreal area is enough to deliver close seats like Papineau to Justin Trudeau.

The Conservatives are three points below where they were in 2006, when they scored their big breakthrough win of 10 seats, mostly in the area 418 region of Quebec City and east.

At this point, they would have to put at least three points back on the board, taking them from the Bloc, to hold on to what they won in 2006. They are much more likely to win only half a dozen seats.

But the 418 is a region where the seats tend to fall one way or the other and unless Harper can grow a point a day at the expense of the Bloc in the next three days, most of 418 will fall one way - to the Bloc.

At this point, Josée Verner is the only the safe Conservative in Quebec City and the North Shore. On the South Shore, Maxime Bernier is a lock in Beauce, along with three other safe Conservative incumbents. And Lawrence Cannon, in the Gatineau seat of Pontiac, makes a half dozen. There's a handful of other seats where the Conservatives are still competitive, but they need to bombard the airwaves, particularly local radio, over the next three days with a two-part message that the Conservatives are going to be in government, and that they are the Block-the-Bloc party. There's nothing very subtle about this, but then it's not a time for subtlety.

Of course, this assumes the Harper high command and its Montreal war room can execute, which is assuming a lot. On all the available evidence of this campaign, when it comes to Quebec, these guys couldn't organize a two-car funeral.

They've taken a campaign that, just three weeks ago, was cruising toward 30 seats in Quebec and turned it in a handful. Quite an achievement when you think of it. They've proven to be totally tone deaf on Quebec, allowing the Bloc to transform a campaign that had been about Harper delivering the goods to Quebec and the Bloc being useless, to one where the Bloc became defenders of Quebec values and identity, an argument they could not lose.

How did that happen? Well, take a few cultural cuts, add a stinging artists' attack video on YouTube, throw in Harper's comment about "rich galas," and you've got "cultural genocide," even though the Conservatives have increased funding for the arts. Then, in the middle of this furor, announce a juvenile- crime package that would see young offenders locked up for life in what Duceppe calls "the universities of crime," and you've got a frontal assault on Quebec values. What worked very well as a crackdown on crime in English Canada got completely flipped on the Conservatives in Quebec. This is partly because Harper turned his Quebec war room over to a bunch of ADQ guys and in their world, somewhere east of Hérouxville, that's fine. Lock 'em up and throw away the key.

Of course, in giving the Quebec campaign over to the ADQ braintrust, if you can call them that, Harper greatly annoyed Jean Charest, who is only three times as popular as Mario Dumont, and controls a thing called the Big Red Machine. Rather than helping Harper, as he did in 2006, Charest has mostly sat this campaign out, when he wasn't getting in Harper's face with a list of demands for Quebec.

To add insult to self-inflicted injury, the Conservatives rolled out a mobile billboard in front of Duceppe's headquarters that Quebecers had wasted $350 million electing Bloc members over the years. And the messenger for this missive in democracy was, wait for it, Michael Fortier from the Senate. Brilliant. Finally, local candidates were ordered by the Conservative high command not to give media interviews or participate in debates How ridiculous was that?.

As a result of their obtuseness and stupidity, the Conservatives have taken themselves out of majority territory because of Quebec, which was supposed to be the road to a majority. Instead, they must fall back on the West and Ontario in hopes for a return to another term as a minority government.

That's what we're looking at - a Groundhog Day result, without Quebec.

Why? Because the Conservatives had it within their grasp in Quebec, and blew it.

 
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