Charest is tapping into the mood of Quebecers

'Give me a majority and I won't bother you for 4 years,' he tells voters. It's working

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three Quebecers out of four were opposed to the calling of this election, but two Quebecers in three want a majority government, according to this week's CROP poll for La Presse. In other words, the voters are prepared to punish Jean Charest by rewarding him with a majority.

What he's really saying to Quebecers, then, is "give me a majority and I won't bother you for another four years." And it's working. CROP has the Liberals in majority territory at 42 per cent, 11 points ahead of the Parti Quebecois at 31 per cent, with the Action démocratique du Québec trailing badly at 15 per cent.

There's another counter-intuitive finding in the CROP poll. Charest called the election seeking a mandate to deal with the economic crisis, but the voters rate health care and education as the top two issues, with the economy only third.

That might well be, except that the CROP question is an assisted one, where voters rank their priorities on a list of 15 issues read to them. But in the Liberals' internal research, the question is unprompted and the economy leads by a wide margin over health care.

The voters' assisted response is perfectly normal. The two largest services delivered by the province are health care and education. Everyone has a story about the health-care system, and everyone cares about the education of their children. Of course, health care and education are top priorities.

But the coverage weights of the global economic crisis, since the collapse of the stock market in September, are simply overwhelming. Even if things are still going well in Quebec, and the trailing economic indicators are very solid, everyone knows there's a big storm coming, and the Liberals' preferred ballot question is, who is best to deal with it.

Their answer, not surprisingly, is them. And their guy, Charest. The voters agree. Charest's leadership numbers in the CROP poll constitute a huge comparative over the other leaders. On the classic question of "best premier," Charest is at 43 per cent, Pauline Marois at 29 per cent and Mario Dumont at 12 per cent. On who is best to lead Quebec through "difficult economic times," the answer is Charest at 46 per cent, followed by Marois at 24 per cent, and Dumont at 10 per cent. And to the question of who is the best defender of Quebec's interests, Charest leads at 37 per cent, followed by Marois at 31 per cent and Dumont at 13 per cent.

These are seamless leadership numbers for Charest, and there is another important measurement, the satisfaction rate with the government, which stands at 59 per cent.

On CROP's list of 15 issues, there is more bad news for the opposition parties. The issues that are important to them aren't very important to the voters. The PQ's raison d'être, from its founding by René Lévesque 40 years ago, has always been sovereignty. But on the CROP list of issues, the sovereignty of Quebec ranks 13th out of 15.

Which confirms the wisdom of Marois's decision to put sovereignty on the shelf for this election cycle - there isn't a promise to hold a referendum if the PQ is elected. But it's pretty hard for the PQ to motivate its base if its leader can't even give a pep talk about sovereignty. The other issue that always works for the PQ, the defence of Quebec's interests, ranks only 10th.

As for Dumont, who nearly won the 2007 election on the identity issue of reasonable accommodation, "the integration of immigrants" ranks only 13th. The rate of immigration ranks dead last - 15th. So, what was that all about?

Maybe the gong-show phase of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission served a purpose, in that it exposed the whole reasonable accommodation debate as an embarrassment to a tolerant society. In any event, Quebecers have clearly put it behind them. Dumont's attempt last week to get renewed traction on the identity question by denouncing the ethics and religious culture course in schools as "a negation of Quebec values," blew up in his face. It wasn't just the editorialists who denounced it. Voters immediately saw through it for the cheap stunt that it was. It was the moment in which Dumont defined himself. The other day, in an extraordinary speech in his riding of Rivière-du-Loup, he said he's made errors in judgment and is asking voters to give him a second chance. Well, they might still be fond of him, but they're not giving him the keys to the car.

Only one voter in 10 thinks Dumont is the best leader for tough times. Game over for Mario.

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