Harper has the reputation of 'Mr. Mean' in Quebec

Tories can still raise money in Montreal but their electoral prospects are dismal

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Playing down expectations, some Conservative organizers have put it out that a cocktail for Stephen Harper at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel tonight will draw 2,500 people in a hall where 2,000 is generally considered a full house. This could be one for the fire marshals.

The success of this event is largely due to a hard sell by a new Conservative senator, Leo Housakos, who specializes in fundraising for the Tories and the ADQ, which is one of Harper's problems with Jean Charest, but that's another story.

But 2,500 people at $150 a head would bring a gross of $375,000 and, after paying for the hall, cocktails and canapés, leave a net of about $250,000, a very good day's work in the political fund-raising game, and a very good day for Housakos in positioning himself as one of the PM's go-to guys for Montreal.

The problem is that it's a Potemkin Village, a bit of a false front put up for the passage of the czar. The Conservatives might be able to raise money in Montreal, and good for them in this economy, but they don't have any seats from the Montreal region, either on the island or the suburban 450-area-code ring around the city, and they're not going to win any in the next election. They're going to be a bad third to the Liberals and the Bloc, and everyone knows it, including most of the Tory sympathizers and job seekers who will be at tonight's cocktail. At this point, the Tories would do well to retain their stronghold in the 418 area around Quebec City, and they should be focusing their efforts there.

Harper is in deep trouble in Quebec, and not just because Michael Ignatieff is enjoying a free ride with the media and a honeymoon with voters. Ignatieff isn't 10-feet tall, and there are plenty of ways to cut him down to size, though not with the silly attack ads the Conservatives are running portraying him as a stranger in his own land.

Harper's problems in Quebec are entirely the fault of the PM and his Quebec advisers, going back to the election. The cuts to cultural funding and the young offenders proposals, what one Tory wag called "locking up 14-year-old artists for life," cost the Conservatives a majority here in the province that was supposed to provide it. The parliamentary crisis in November over plans to end public funding of political parties and the right to strike in the public sector was defused only when Harper prorogued the House, though not before attacking "the separatist coalition," not polarizing public opinion against the Three Stooges coalition but against the Conservatives in Quebec.

And then at the end of March, the Prime Minister's Office ran an incredibly stupid operation against Brian Mulroney, putting it out that he was no longer a member of the Conservative Party. Apparently, the PMO wanted even more distance from Mulroney going into the Oliphant commission on his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, as if Harper already didn't have enough distance in cutting off all contact with him for the last 18 months.

There was a very bad reaction to this in Quebec, where as Chantal Hebert has noted on the CBC's At Issue panel and elsewhere, Mulroney is regarded "as an iconic figure." It isn't just that he's a favourite son who swept the province in two elections, or that he's the architect of free trade. Most of all, he's remembered as the prime minister who tried to bring Quebec back into the Canadian constitutional fold at Meech Lake, which Quebecers recall with nostalgia as a failed but noble effort, perhaps the more noble for having failed.

These three elements, the campaign cuts, the separatist coalition and the shunning of Mulroney by a prime minister of his own party, add up to a kind of three strikes against Harper in Quebec. Perhaps unfairly, he is being defined by these events for what is known in French as "mesquinerie," a certain meanness of spirit. And it is sticking to him here despite the many times he has offered "la main tendue," the outstretched hand, to Quebec, beginning in the 2006 campaign, and in every circumstance since, not least his reading his opening statements entirely in French first, as well as the Québécois nation resolution he steered through the House.

But perception is reality in politics, and the current perception of Harper in Quebec is that he's "mesquin" or mean-spirited. He finishes a bad third as best prime minister in the polls, and he is prime minister. It has nothing to do with perceived competence, and everything to do with his perceived personality. Just as Joe Clark became known as a wimp, and Paul Martin became known as Mr. Dithers, Harper is getting a rap as Mr. Mean.

He's not going to change this perception with a blue sweater; he's going to have to go on a continuous charm offensive, as well as reminding Quebecers at every turn what he is delivering for them.

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