The Conservatives have fallen out of favour with Quebecers, and it's mostly the PM's fault

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The Gazette, Sunday, February 1, 2009

If the Conservatives were still in denial about how much trouble they've created for themselves in Quebec, the latest CROP poll in La Presse should serve as their reality check.

CROP shows the Bloc Québécois at 34 per cent, down four points from the election; the Liberals at 31 per cent, a seven-point surge since October; while the Conservatives have plummeted six points to 16 per cent, with the NDP up three points to 15 per cent.

On the question of best prime minister, Michael Ignatieff leads at 37 per cent, Jack Layton is at 23 per cent, and Stephen Harper, who actually is prime minister, is at just 16 per cent.

Harper's approval numbers have cratered, only three months after he won the election. This has nothing to do with his management of the economic crisis, and everything to do with the political crisis provoked by Harper around the November economic statement.

The blowback in Quebec comes down to Harper's harsh denunciations of "the separatist coalition," which served its purpose against the opposition parties in English-speaking Canada, but became a tipping point for sliding Conservative support in Quebec.

Riding high in Quebec at 35 per cent in a Léger poll published on Sept. 19 at the end of the campaign's second week, the Harper Conservatives went into a free fall that began two days later with their mobile billboard stunt alleging Quebecers had wasted $350 million voting for the Bloc since 1990. In essence, they were calling the voters stupid. The next day, the Conservatives unveiled their young-offender proposals, which Gilles Duceppe pounced on as "creating universities of crime." The following day, under fire for his cultural cuts, Harper made his careless comment about "rich galas," reviving a story that had gone away.

Duceppe successfully transformed a campaign that had been about the Bloc's continued pertinence in Ottawa into one in which it became the defender of Quebec values, a debate Harper had no chance of winning. Harper pulled it together in the last days of the campaign, and managed to salvage 10 seats, just as many as in 2006, but a far cry from the majority that was within his grasp only three weeks earlier. And all because the Conservatives misread Quebec.

Harper's separatist coalition rhetoric in the House, and especially in his televised address to the country on Dec. 3, served their purpose in the rest of the country. But the fact that he referred to sovereignists in the French version of the TV talk only made it worse in Quebec--it looked as if he was trying to get away with saying one thing in English and another in French.

The backlash in Quebec was measured in the results of the Quebec election the following Monday, which Jean Charest's Liberals won by only seven points rather than the 13- to 16- point spread projected in Léger and CROP polls completed before movement to the Parti Québécois, driven by the angry reaction to Harper's comments in the closing days of the campaign.

There is no other reason, no other event, to explain Harper's plummeting voting intention and approval rating in Quebec since then. Both are at 16 per cent. With numbers like that on election day, the Conservatives would win no more than three seats in Quebec, Max Bernier and two players to be named later.

As for the spike in support for the Liberals, it's not as if Iggymania is breaking out in Quebec, it's just that Ignatieff isn't Harper, who has fallen completely out of favour. Iggy also isn't Stéphane Dion, and that helps.

There can be only one competitive federalist party at a time in Quebec, and the Liberals are now well-positioned to be that party. Liberal support in this CROP poll would translate into about 30 Quebec seats. And that would kick in the echo effect in Ontario, where voters like to elect national governments with support in Quebec.

There has been some suggestion that Harper is now giving up on Quebec, and will focus his re-election efforts in wooing Ontario. That wouldn't be like Harper, and wouldn't be very smart.

He has invested a lot in Quebec - from reading all his statements in French first, to resolving the fiscal imbalance, to the Québécois nation resolution. But those were all in his first term. He is starting his second term with a huge approval deficit here.

This predicament is entirely of Harper's own making, and that of his Quebec advisers, going back to the campaign. Maybe he needs better advice. He certainly needs to be more visible in Quebec. And finally, he needs to patch things up with Charest, and demonstrate that Ottawa can work with Quebec. That's not going to be easy, but the economic crisis might be just the opportunity.

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