Quebec's federalist parties should consider a pact

The Liberals remain strong in Montreal while Conservative base is Quebec City

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The Gazette, Sunday, February 14, 2010

The simple reality of the federal electoral map in Quebec is that the Liberals are the competitive federalist party in the Montreal region and the Conservatives play the same role in Quebec City and east.

There are 18 seats on the island of Montreal and another nine in the suburban ring around the city, and this is where the Liberals have all 14 of their seats in the House. There are 17 seats in Quebec City and the eastern part of the province, and this is where the Conservatives hold nine of their 11 Quebec seats in the House.

Stated another way, the Liberals are the "block the Bloc" party in area codes 514 and 450, while the Conservatives play that same role in area 418.

The latest poll by CROP in late January confirms this. Overall, Quebec's most reliable pollster has the Bloc at 34 per cent, the Liberals at 24 per cent, the Conservatives at 21 per cent, with the NDP at 17 per cent.

When you look at the regional breakouts, those are relatively efficient numbers for both the Conservatives and the Liberals. In the Quebec City region, the Conservatives have a healthy lead at 33 per cent, against 24 per cent for the Bloc and 22 per cent for the Liberals. That means there isn't a riding in the region, including all eight Bloc seats, that isn't in play. The Bloc's worst fears were realized in the November by-election in Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, when the Liberal vote collapsed to the Conservative Party candidate, Bernard Généreux, who stole a seat the Bloc had held since 1993. And not by a little, but by a full five points.

By contrast, in the Montreal region the Bloc is at 32 per cent, the Liberals at 30 per cent, with the Conservatives trailing badly at 15 per cent.

At some point, the two federalist parties might want to consider an informal non-aggression pact. As in, you take Montreal, we'll take Quebec City. Both parties would field a full slate of candidates, but in terms of their ground game and media buy, each would focus their resources on shoring up their strongholds. That would really be a problem for Gilles Duceppe, who obviously benefits from the splits in the federalist vote.

This, in essence, is where the Conservatives were going this past week with their decision to close their office in Montreal, and open one in Quebec City. The staffing decisions made by the Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis, were also significant. Ghislain Maltais becomes director of operations on the ground out of Quebec City, while Joseph Soares becomes the communications manager and number cruncher out of the Conservative Party's national headquarters in Ottawa.

While they not are exactly household names, these are the two guys who ran Généreux's winning campaign in Rivière-du-Loup. Maltais is a former Liberal member of the National Assembly from the Bourassa era, while Soares previously ran the Quebec desk in the PM's office. Both are from Lawrence Cannon's political shop, and no one in the Conservative camp is closer to the Quebec Liberals than the foreign affairs minister, himself a former provincial minister during the Bourassa years.

There's only one effective federalist campaign organization, and that is the Big Red Machine of the provincial Liberals, which Jean Charest has deployed in favour of whichever party has a chance of beating the Bloc. Indeed, the three provincial Liberal MNAs in Généreux's by-election upset all backed the Conservatives, on instructions from Charest.

But a major rift has developed between the Charest and Harper governments over climate change, among other issues, that has jeopardized efforts to improve their working relationship.

It began at the Copenhagen conference, with Charest's critical comments on federal emission mitigation targets, as well as his observations about the oilsands, which didn't go down very well in Alberta.

And it was a very bad moment for Charest in Rivière-du-Loup, of all places, last month when he said at an environmental announcement that he regretted nothing of what he had said on the world stage at Copenhagen, and didn't take a word of it back. Standing beside him as he said this was Stephen Harper, who didn't rise to the bait, but was privately incensed. Subsequently, Charest wondered why Quebec didn't have a seat at the table at the Haitian Preparatory Conference of foreign ministers in Montreal. That wasn't too hard to figure out. Nor was it an accident that Environment Minister Jim Prentice, in the text of his recent climate change update, referred to the "folly" of Quebec "going it alone" on auto-emissions standards. That didn't pass unnoticed, either.

No one ever lost any votes in Quebec by running against Ottawa. But that's a short game. It's usually a better idea to play the long game, especially when Ottawa is holding the purse strings.

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