Harper needs Charest's help to win in Quebec

But the new Liberal leader is also trying to woo the premier and his machine

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 6, 2009

When Jean Charest turned 50 last year, Stephen Harper made a point of dropping in on a birthday party at the Chateau Laurier. "I wanted," said Harper, "to see what 50 looked like."

Last week, it was Charest's turn to reciprocate, when the premier called the prime minister on his 50th birthday.

"Fifty and prime minister," Charest told him, "It doesn't get any better than that."

Actually, it could be quite a bit better for Harper in Quebec, where he had invested so many of his hopes for graduating from minority to majority status last year. It's no secret what has gone wrong for Harper here - the multiple campaign gaffes from his brain-dead war room, the "separatist coalition" wedge tactics of the parliamentary crisis, and lately the suggestion put out by his office that Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of the Conservative Party, which is right up there in the annals of self-inflicted wounds.

The question for Harper, as he surveys the wreckage of his high hopes for Quebec, is whether he can begin again, and how. Once voters, particularly Quebec voters, make their minds up about a leader, it's very hard to persuade them to take another look. Harper's approval numbers in last week's CROP poll, as best prime minister, were at a dismal 17 per cent.

For Harper, making things better in Quebec starts with making them work better with Charest. Even more so now that Michael Ignatieff is openly courting Charest. In a newser following the Liberal convention last weekend, Iggy called Charest a visionary, a man of ideas and, for good measure, "a man of conviction, an unshakeable federalist."

For Harper, as for Ignatieff, it isn't just about being seen working with Quebec in the mutual interest, especially through the recession. There's also something called the Big Red Machine, which Charest controls, the only federalist ground game of any consequence in Quebec. The federal Liberals are trying to rebuild their organization, and under Denis Coderre's management as Iggy's Quebec lieutenant, their prospects are looking up in the polls, candidate recruitment and organization. The Conservatives played a double game in last fall's election, relying on Mario Dumont's guys as well as the Quebec Liberals, but after the ADQ got taken down in December's election, Harper should have no further illusions about what the ADQ can deliver. Only the provincial Liberals can help the Conservatives be competitive off the island of Montreal.

But here's a small way in which Harper can be helpful to Charest. There's a provincial byelection coming up to fill Dumont's former seat in Rivière-du-Loup. It's going to be very competitive between the Parti Québécois and the Liberals. The Conservatives and federal Liberals should be tripping over one another in their attempts to help Charest out. This is the one part of the province, in area 418, where the Conservatives have a respectable ground game. They also have a thing called incumbency, and they can make the Earth move, quite literally, with a number of federal-provincial announcements that would look good on Charest.

On larger issues, and longer-term policy perspectives, it isn't that difficult to identify affinities between Harper and Charest.

For example, all this infrastructure money in the federal budget is "shovel-ready," transactional stuff. And that is a big part of Harper's problem, in Quebec and elsewhere: He increasingly looks like a transactional leader. He's a politician in need of some big ideas.

A free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union is a big idea, one that Charest has also been promoting hard for the last year and a half. As it happens, Harper will be launching the Canada-EU trade talks in Prague today. It would have been a good opportunity for Harper to have Charest around in a supporting role, not as premier of Quebec but as this year's chairman of the Council of the Federation.

International trade is an exclusive federal jurisdiction, but the provinces have a major role on issues such as procurement and labour mobility. Despite differences with Harper over the last year, Charest has also been fulsome in acknowledging that Harper encouraged him to play a lead role on negotiating reciprocity in professional credentials with France and starting up the EU free trade round. Charest's office would have welcomed such an opportunity - the premier likes being on the big stage. Harper's office, totally tone deaf on Quebec, missed the moment.

Other ideas out there include a high-speed Quebec-Ontario rail corridor, not a new idea but definitely a big one. Charest is promoting it for obvious reasons, including Bombardier being the obvious candidate to build the rolling stock (it has the technology). Ontario also likes the idea, as does Ignatieff, who is shopping around for a big idea. The cost is estimated to be between $20 billion and $30 billion.

This is an infrastructure package in and of itself. But it's big-picture stuff. Anything that puts Harper and Charest on the same page, and stands him in good stead in the rest of the country, is a step on the road back. Anything that fills his original promise of "open federalism" helps him with the vision thing.

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