Ignatieff's the victim as the Liberal brand loses its lustre

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Liberals are running in third place in Quebec, and it's not Michael Ignatieff 's fault.

In yesterday's Nanos daily tracking poll for CTV and the Globe and Mail, the Bloc was at 35.8 per cent, the Conservatives at 22 per cent and the Liberals at 18.6 per cent, just ahead of the NDP at 17.9 per cent.

When you break out the linguistic component, the Liberals would have less than 15 per cent of the francophone vote. That's 85 per cent of the population who deliver no fewer than 60 of Quebec's 75 seats in the House of Commons.

If these numbers hold through May 2, the Liberals will be reduced to their redoubt in the Montreal region, mostly on the West Island and the north end of the city. At this point, they stand to win about 10 to 12 seats, down from 14 at dissolution.

What we're witnessing is the long-term decline of a storied political brand that began long before Iggy came on the scene.

If anything, Ignatieff has been saying the right things to Quebecers for years. He recognized Quebecers as a nation within Canada in his 2006 leadership campaign. On the national question, he says voters here see Quebec as their home and Canada as their country. This is a tried and proven theme: Le Quebec c'est ma patrie; le Canada c'est mon pays.

Ignatieff hasn't connected with voters here so far, although a campaign is his best opportunity to at least make himself known. But in fairness, he's also carrying a lot of Liberal baggage.

To be sure, the Liberals are the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chrétien, four favourite sons of Quebec who governed the country for nearly 50 years since Confederation. The Liberal tradition of alternating French-and English-speaking leaders has made it the country's natural governing party. The Liberal trademark and "le French power" have been synonymous for decades. But the Liberal franchise has been in decline in Quebec since the unilateral patriation of the Constitution, over the objections of Quebec, in 1981.

The death of the Meech Lake accord in 1990, in which both Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien played a leading role, was another bad day for the Liberals in Quebec.

And the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum can largely be attributed to Lucien Bouchard's personifying an accumulated sense of grievance over patriation and the loss of Meech Lake, which Quebecers regarded as a kind of constitutional peace with honour. That referendum was largely about payback, and again it was the federal Liberal brand that took the hit.

And then came the sponsorship scandal, the seeds of which were sowed by Chrétien's decision to literally show the flag in Quebec following the near disaster of the referendum.

The federal auditor-general's 2004 report on the sponsorship scandal was damaging enough. The Gomery Commission in 2005, which made the Liberals look like the guys in Goodfellas, was a devastating blow from which they have yet to recover.

Oh, and one more thing. The federal Liberals have taken a big collateral hit in Quebec from all of the troubles of Jean Charest and the provincial Liberals.

The Conservatives have polled as high as 26 per cent in the Nanos tracking, and if they can put up numbers like that on election day, they will win 15 seats in Quebec. Their vote, centred in the 418 region around Quebec City, is very efficient for them. They hold nine of the 21 seats in the region, the Bloc hold the rest, and the Liberals are not even on the radar. In this region of Quebec, the Conservatives have already become the default choice of federalist voters. And the polls are trending that way in the rest of Quebec outside Montreal. If the Conservatives become the "Block the Bloc" party, a card the Liberals have played in the past, that would marginalize them further in the 50 seats outside Montreal.

And Monday in Victoriaville, Harper announced a commitment to complete a $2.2 billion harmonizedsales-tax deal with Quebec by September, to be costed in the Conservative platform.

This is a big win for Quebec, and might be enough for Harper to close the deal with those voters who are asking what's in this election for Quebec. It is certainly something for him to run on here. Meanwhile, Ignatieff supports an HST deal but it's not costed, and Gilles Duceppe says the Bloc will vote against the budget if it's brought back in a minority House, even if it has HST money in it. Funny, Ignatieff said the same thing about voting against the budget.

Which plays into Harper's coalition narrative, even as he just wedged them both on the HST.

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