Bloc's ouster is very good news for Charest's Liberals

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Among the winners in the federal election were Jean Charest and the Quebec Liberals, whose names weren't on the ballot.

Here's why.

Where there were 47 members of the Bloc Québécois in the previous House of Commons, there are only four in the new one.

That means there are 43 fewer riding offices with employees on the federal payroll working to defeat the Charest Liberals and elect the Parti Québécois.

Moreover, as the Bloc has only four members, where 12 MPs are required for recognized party status, it will have no party standing in the House. And that means no paid staff, no research, and no car and driver for the leader, whoever that turns out to be. The four MPs will sit together, essentially as private members, almost out of sight and certainly out of the speaker's mind.

Where the Bloc used to have three or four turns a day in question period, working its narrative of grievance for Quebec (all on the federal dime), it will be lucky now to get one question every two weeks.

This means the Bloc will be off the media radar, out of the news cycle, and out of the game. Its MPs might be giving scrums in the lobby of the House, but no one will report them.

At a certain level Charest can probably feel their pain, because he's been there as the head of a Tory caucus of two after the historic rout of the Progressive Conservatives in the 1993 election.

It took him four years, and winning 20 seats in 1997, to get the PCs off life support. At one point, party members were donating frequent-flyer points so he could travel to party events not covered by his parliamentary budget. He had a modest office down a corridor on the sixth floor of the Centre Block - an office occupied until recently by New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, soon to be moving to the Opposition leader's office on the fourth floor.

In terms of momentum, the takedown of the Bloc by the NDP was a game changer. Gilles Duceppe's disastrous speech to the PQ convention on April 17 gave Quebecers bad memories of the 1995 referendum, to which he alluded.

When he said, "Et tout redevient encore possible," he was quoting from the separatist slogan of that divisive campaign: "Oui, et tout devient possible." It might have played well in the room, but it didn't with the voters, who spontaneously moved to le bon Jack in the last two weeks of the campaign. It didn't help that two days later Duceppe brought out Jacques Parizeau, who personified all the awful memories of the 1995 referendum.

By Easter weekend, as they met around the family dinner table, Quebec voters had decided to take a chance on Smiling Jack, with whom they'd become very comfortable over the first four weeks of the campaign. In the fifth week, the trend to the NDP became as hard as the boards at the Bell Centre.

Now, instead of a strong Bloc deputation in Ottawa, there is only a remnant, awaiting the eventual disappearance that was the fate of the Créditistes, who were reduced to five members in 1979 and wiped off the map in the 1980 election.

While Bloc supporters point out that the party won nearly 900,000 votes, that's down from 1.7 million in 2004. In the last four elections, the Bloc's share of the popular vote has declined from 49 per cent to 42, to 38, and now 23 per cent. This is a trend line moving in the wrong direction.

Winning conditions? Hardly. Moreover, Duceppe's speech was a reminder that the prospect of another referendum is a hidden ballot question that benefits Charest and the Quebec Liberals. In an election, it could be worth at least 10 points.

Charest might have had a bad year in 2010, but he appears to have bottomed out in the polls and to be getting back on his game. Since he's the best retail campaigner of his generation, that's good news for the Liberals as they look ahead to an election in the fall of 2012 or spring of 2013. Meanwhile, the voters have failed to warm to Pauline Marois, who comes across as a bit of a Mother Superior. And while there are rumblings on the right, they shouldn't be taken seriously unless and until there's a merger of all the conservative parties and movements.

Looking ahead to the next Quebec election, it is time for Charest and Stephen Harper to put their relationship back together. That began in the federal election; the provincial Liberals worked for Conservative candidates in their former stronghold in eastern Quebec, where the rising NDP tide took out five of their MPs. Harper knows that Charest was onside. They have a common interest: beating the PQ.

What Charest needs now is a win from Ottawa, and he's about to get one in a throne speech and budget with a commitment to harmonize the federal and provincial sales tax. That's a $2.2-billion windfall for the Quebec treasury, something for which Charest, and not the Bloc, will get all the credit.

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