Harper has managed to cut his Quebec support in half

That's quite an accomplishment only six months after the election

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The Gazette, Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's 2004 all over again, according to the big EKOS poll released by the CBC the other day. An election today would produce a Liberal minority government, at 36.7 per cent, with Conservatives at 30.2 per cent and the NDP down to 15.5 per cent.

In seat distribution, that would result in about 135 to 140 Liberals, including 75 seats in Ontario, as against 95 to 100 Conservatives, including none in Quebec - the result of the 2004 election that returned Paul Martin's Liberal minority government.

The Liberals are not only resurgent in Ontario, but in Quebec, where they have reclaimed their former status as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc Québécois. The Bloc is holding steady at 39.5 per cent, the Liberals at 33 per cent, the NDP at 11.7 per cent and the Conservatives at 10.9 per cent. In Quebec, those numbers would result in about 45 Bloc members and 30 Liberals, with the NDP and Conservatives putting up big fat zeros. Not even Maxime Bernier could hold on to his seat in the Beauce in such a trend.

You could call this the repolarization of Quebec around the customary question of country that dominated every election from 1993 to 2004, and was broken when the Harper Conservatives established a 10-seat beachhead known as "open federalism" in 2006. The Conservatives managed to retain their 10 seats in 2008, most in and around Quebec City, and all of them outside the Montreal region, which has remained strictly a two-horse race between the Libs and the Bloc, except for the NDP's Tom Mulcair.

There's also an Iggy effect in Quebec, in which the Liberals are partly the beneficiaries of Michael Ignatieff not being Stéphane Dion. But Iggy is trying to build a bigger tent by playing the identity card, telling voters he doesn't care whether they consider themselves Quebecers or Canadians first, as long as they regard themselves as both, and vote for him. And it's working.

But there's also an anti-Harper effect, and it's hitting the Conservatives hard, only six months after they stood on the doorstep of a majority, to which they could have crossed the threshold through Quebec. It's worth noting that in a Léger poll last Sept. 19, the Conservatives led in Quebec at 35 per cent, with the Bloc at 32 per cent, and the Liberals in the teens. Harper was on his way to 35 seats in Quebec. Three weeks later, he finished the campaign with 22 per cent in Quebec, three points lower than he had in 2006, and only 10 seats, leaving him a dozen seats shy of a majority.

Harper's missed rendez-vous with a majority was the result of a disastrously tone-deaf campaign tactics approved by his own circle and by ADQ parachutes in the Conservative war room. These were the geniuses who dreamed up the cultural cuts, the young offenders' crackdown and the stupid mobile billboard saying voting for the Bloc had been a waste of $350 million of taxpayer money, insulting the intelligence of Quebec voters.

Having lost a majority in October, Harper proceeded to nearly lose the government in December with the economic update that would have ended public subsidies to political parties and the right to strike in the public service. This resulted in the opposition coalition that took the country to the brink, and which Harper characterized in the House and in a TV address as "the separatist coalition," which worked for him in English-speaking Canada but blew him up in Quebec.

Then, just as the Conservatives started to climb out of that hole in Quebec, they dug another one around the question of whether Brian Mulroney was still a member of the Conservative Party. This was an operation run out of the Prime Minister's Office, and Paul Wells has the goods on that, the whole tick-tock, in a takeout in the current issue of Maclean's, which revived the story of the Mulroney-Harper feud for a third week running. The PMO stepped on its own message going into the G20 and NATO summits, and then Harper spent the two-week Easter recess, normally a good-news window for the government and the PM, largely dodging questions about Mulroney.

And then there's the stupid economy, which would take a toll on the voting intention of any government and the approval rating of any prime minister.

All of which is to say that at 11 per cent in Quebec, the Conservative vote has shrunk by half in only six months, and fallen from first to fourth place.

Quite an achievement, when you think of it.

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