Party of grievances is losing its raison d'être

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The Gazette, Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Bloc Québécois, a party of grievance, is floundering in this campaign precisely because it lacks a narrative of grievance.

In the 1993 election, the Bloc captured 49 per cent of the vote and 54 of Quebec's 75 seats because Lucien Bouchard's narrative of grievance was Quebec's constitutional exclusion with the death of Meech Lake in 1990 and the patriation of the Constitution over Quebec's objections in 1981. Quebec as a victim. There's been an audience for that since the Plains of Abraham.

In 2004, the Bloc again won 49 per cent of the vote and 54 seats, because Gilles Duceppe had the Liberal sponsorship scandal going for him.

In 2006, the whiff of the sponsorship scandal was still in the air in the wake of the sensational Gomery Commission, but the Bloc was pushed back to 42 per cent of the vote and 51 seats, as the Conservatives established a 10-seat beachhead in Quebec.

In 2008, the Conservatives handed Duceppe an incredible gift in the campaign with the cuts to cultural spending and their kiddie-crime package. Duceppe successfully bundled this into a ballot question about Quebec values. For good measure, the Conservatives told Quebecers they had wasted their time and money voting for the Bloc going back to 1993, which voters understandably found insulting. On election day, the Bloc rebounded to 38 per cent of the vote and 49 seats.

In the fourth week of the 2011 campaign, Duceppe is spinning his wheels. In the early going, he tried to torque Larry Smith's comments - that Quebecers weren't worried about their language - into an affront to cultural security. The old "humiliating" trick. It didn't move the numbers.

Duceppe got a temporary five-point bump in the daily Nanos poll twice last week: once after appearing on Tout le monde en parle, which has an audience bigger than hockey; and again after the French-language leaders' debate, which he dominated.

But each time, the Bloc's poll numbers settled back down to the mid-30s, at 36 per cent in Monday's Nanos poll and 34 per cent in the Quebec breakout of a national Léger poll that had the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals by 38 to 26 per cent. Both polls also found the NDP surging to second place in the mid-20s in Quebec at the expense of the Bloc and the Conservatives.

Duceppe is on track to post the Bloc's lowest popular vote ever, though splits in the federalist vote could keep the party close to 50 seats. Part of Duceppe's problem is that he's been around since the last century. This is the third decade, and sixth election, in which he's been the leader of a party that once promised to disappear. There's a certain fatigue factor setting in with the Bloc.

And absent the necessary narrative of grievance, that makes it very hard for Duceppe to get out his vote.

This is why Pauline Marois, at the Parti Québécois convention on Sunday, made no less than four pleas to Péquistes to get out and vote for their Bloc buddies on May 2. She noted that she was herself going up to the Saguenay this week to lend a hand.

And Duceppe has a new closing argument - that Quebecers have to vote for the Bloc to prevent the Conservatives from getting a majority.

This is an interesting departure. A party whose appeal has always been based on emotion is making an argument for strategic voting.

Perhaps Duceppe doesn't understand English-speaking Canada well enough to know that this just reinforces the Conservatives' case for a majority government in the rest of the country.

And speaking at the PQ convention, Duceppe went further.

"We have only one task to accomplish," he said. "Elect the maximum number of sovereignists in Ottawa and then we go to the next phase - electing a PQ government. A strong Bloc in Ottawa. The PQ in power in Quebec. And everything again becomes possible."

So his second closing argument is: elect an unstable government in Ottawa so we can elect a separatist government in Quebec, and move to a referendum to break up the country.

That's how Stephen Harper, far away in British Columbia, interpreted Duceppe's comments in Montreal. Michael Ignatieff, because he's marginalized in this conversation, quickly accused Harper of fearmongering.

As for Duceppe, he's playing the sovereignty card because nothing else is working for him. Not Quebec's victimhood, its isolation, or its exclusion.

Why, it's downright humiliating. For him.

For Quebecers who would rather talk about the Canadiens than the campaign, he may be reminding them that, like other Canadians, they are simply fed up with voting all the time.

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