A little pavement goes a long way in Quebec politics

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 19, 2009

After the announcement of a highway project comes the re-announcement, as occurred the other day when Stephen Harper and Jean Charest donned hard hats for a photo op announcing the extension of the Gatineau Autoroute, Highway 5, which to all appearances is already a work in progress.

Well, this is "the second phase" of the extension, the Prime Minister's Office noted in a press release, "building 6.5 kilometres of four-lane divided highway between Meech Creek and Wakefield."

This just in: They were going to build it anyway, except the feds are now in for 50 per cent of the cost. If you build it, the PM will come for a pic as part of his summer infrastructure rollout tour.

This is a time-honoured way of doing business in Quebec, where Maurice Duplessis once supposedly declared that a bridge was good for three announcements - one announcing the project, the second at the start of construction, and the third at its completion.

Among the intended beneficiaries of the announcement is Lawrence Cannon, the Foreign Affairs minister and member of Parliament for Pontiac, who understands that a little pavement can go a long way in the run-up to an election.

But the real significance of the re-announcement was the photo op between Harper and Charest, following a private meeting between them in Gatineau last Friday.

After a period of very strained relations, for which both the PM and the premier share the blame, their working relationship is now in better shape, though not yet all the way to good.

"Perfection doesn't exist," says one senior adviser to Charest, "but for both levels of government, it's in their interest to make it work. The premier and the PM had a good meeting, the tone was good."

And it set up the highway photo op, where Charest was able to put in a good word for Harper.

For example, Charest went out of his way to say that Ottawa was doing a good job of moving infrastructure dollars out the door, and noting that dollars to jump-start the economy are moving much faster from Ottawa than they are from Washington, where 90 per cent of Barack Obama's $787-billion recovery package is still tied up in bureaucratic knots.

Charest went beyond his brief in saying that, and Harper would appreciate any positive comments about his government coming out of Quebec.

Harper needs to get back on message of delivering the goods for Quebec, and distinguishing the Conservatives from the Liberals as the federalist party that respects the constitutional rules of the road in the Canadian federation. For the moment the Liberals have regained the upper hand as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc in the 50-seat Rest of Quebec battleground outside Montreal. If the Conservatives are to re-gain traction in the ROQ ridings, they need to make a convincing case that they're not only different from the Liberals, but better for Quebec's interests.

And in terms of delivering the goods for Quebec, Harper enjoys the advantage of incumbency, which has only been accentuated by a $33-billion infrastructure program, $12 billion of it in stimulus spending alone over the next two years.

This means he gets to announce even more stuff than usual on his summer tour. But some heavy lifting is going into those photo ops, particularly in Quebec.

The machinery of government is cumbersome in both Ottawa and Quebec, with territorial imperatives built in, and without a built-in bias to get things done.

Moreover, there are municipalities and even school boards involved as recipients of some of this money, which means another level of approvals below the province.

"If you're capable of working the system," says Charest's chief of staff, Dan Gagnier, "you can get a lot done in a short period of time. And there is a willingness in both governments to do better."

Very quietly, Gagnier has established his own working relationship with two key federal ministers: John Baird, in charge of infrastructure money, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in charge of all the money.

These interpersonal relations have enabled the premier's office to work around the Quebec advisers in Harper's office, whose close connections to the ADQ do the PM no good with Charest.

Sometimes it's just called getting it done. A lot goes into those roadside photo ops.

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