Return to separatist message spelled doom for Duceppe

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The defining moment of the federal election campaign, and its historic turning point, was the speech that Gilles Duceppe gave to the Parti Québécois policy convention on April 17.

The leader of a party founded on grievance, from the death of Meech Lake to the sponsorship scandal, Duceppe was already losing precisely because he lacked a narrative of grievance.

Desperate to rally his separatist base, he decided to make a separatist speech.

"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."

"Et tout redevient encore possible: " words that will be carved on Duceppe's political tombstone.

They implied a word that is toxic in Quebec. The "R" word. Referendum.

No one in Quebec wants to live through that again. But just to remind voters of what they didn't want, Duceppe then brought out Jacques Parizeau, Mr. Money and Ethnic Votes himself, to rally the failing separatist fortunes.

Parizeau, who's never had the decency to disappear, brought back all the bad memories of the 1995 referendum campaign.

Duceppe's speech was delivered on the anniversary of the patriation of the Constitution over the objections of Quebec, an event that, along with the killing of Meech by Pierre Trudeau, gave the Bloc the grievance narrative of its birth.

And the speech, as events proved over the last two weeks of the campaign, was its death knell.

Until then, Jack Layton's percentage of support in Quebec had been growing steadily from the mid-teens to the low 20s in the Nanos daily tracking poll.

He'd got a nice five-point bump from a very good outing on Tout le monde en parle, a show with a bigger audience than Habs hockey. Then Quebecers heard about his sparkling performance in the English leaders' debate, where he'd landed a haymaker on Michael Ignatieff over the latter's attendance record. And he more than held his own with Duceppe in the French leaders' debate on April 13.

Four days later, Duceppe made his disastrous speech to the PQ convention, revealing an agenda to hold yet another referendum to divide Quebecers and break up the country.

Hearing this, Quebecers decided that they would themselves block the Bloc, a tactical move that had worked for the Liberals and, since 2006, the Conservatives, presenting themselves as the federalist default alternative.

Spontaneously, and in droves, Quebecers had one more look at Layton and decided he was the guy to block the Bloc. In the last two weeks of the campaign, his support grew by 20 points into the low 40s.

An NDP vote that would have been gratifying but inefficient at 20 per cent became a landslide of historic proportions at 40 per cent. At that point, Layton didn't need a ground game; the vote delivered itself. A rising tide does, indeed, lift all the boats - including the votes of student candidates who had to take time off from campaigning to write their finals. PoliSci 201, in real time.

What did Quebecers see about Layton that they liked? They saw a guy who was, as they used to say in Canadian tourism ads, "friendly and familiar, foreign but near."

A man with a smile on his face, even as he was scoring partisan points.

A man with a positive message, selling himself as the candidate of hope and change.

A man with a compelling personal narrative, a cancer survivor.

Un bon Jack. A good guy, whose French was imperfect but colloquial.

At the beginning, he hobbled on his cane. At the end, he was brandishing it as the symbol of a gallant campaign.

And as Layton surged, Duceppe plummeted, from 39 per cent before his PQ convention speech, to 23 per cent on election day. From 47 seats to only four, meaning the Bloc will not even be a recognized party in the House, with no staff and no standing in Question Period. Duceppe lost his own seat in Laurier- Sainte-Marie, not by a little but by a lot.

Layton's rising tide became a tsunami, sweeping aside everything in its way, even safe Liberal and Conservative seats in Montreal and Quebec City.

While there was a spillover effect of the NDP surge into Ontario, where voters remembered a bad NDP provincial government in the 1990s, it only served to elect a Conservative majority government on the splits between the Liberals and the NDP. The Liberals, once the dominant party of Quebec and Ontario, were reduced to a rump of 17 seats in those two provinces, and 34 overall. While the NDP were measuring the drapes in Stornoway, the Liberals were measuring crepe.

The Hon. Jack Layton, Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. He's earned it. In the process, he's got rid of the Bloc, thanks to Duceppe, a man totally tone-deaf to the voices of his own people.

This is a great day for Canada.

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