Mulcair's moment in the sun

Polls showing the NDP'S continuing strength in Quebec suggest voters here may not return to the Bloc as their default position

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A look at public-opinion polls over the last three months makes it clear that while the federal Liberals got a bump from their policy convention in January, the New Democratic Party is enjoying one of its own after its leadership convention in March.

Two Nanos Research polls in late January and late February showed the Liberals moving smartly past the NDP into second place behind the Conservatives. The rounded Nanos numbers for February were Conservatives, 36-per-cent support; Liberals, 30 per cent; NDP, 25 per cent, and Bloc Québécois, five per cent (in Quebec, barely 20 per cent).

But two polls last week, both taken within 10 days of the NDP convention, show the New Democrats surging back not just into second place, but in a statistical dead heat with the Conservatives.

A Harris-Decima survey showed the Conservatives at 34 per cent, the NDP at 32, the Liberals at 19 (back where they finished on election day), and the Bloc at six per cent (in Quebec, about the 23 per cent they scored on May 2).

And a Léger Marketing poll for The Gazette and Le Devoir had the NDP and Conservatives at 33 and 32 per cent, with the Liberals again at 19 per cent.

In both polls, Quebec drove the NDP numbers, just as it did in the campaign last spring. In the Léger poll, the NDP was at 47 per cent in Quebec, with the Bloc at 29, while the Liberals and Conservatives were both dead in the water at 10 per cent. For the New Democrats, this is four points higher than they rose in Quebec on election day, when they won 59 out of 75 seats here, with the Liberals at seven seats, the Conservatives at five seats and the Bloc at four. These Léger numbers would produce something like 65 NDP seats in Quebec, about half a dozen for the Bloc, and the Liberals and Conservatives reduced to one or two seats each in their former regional strongholds of the West Island and Quebec City.

While these numbers are obviously not sustainable in the longer term, it's clear that Tom Mulcair is enjoying a season of approval as a favourite son of Quebec, a huge comparative advantage with voters here. You can look this up under Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jack Layton.

But federalists of all political stripes might want to wish Mulcair and the NDP well in Quebec in the short term. It's not complicated: with the NDP not only a viable choice but as the place to be, Quebecers will have no reason to return to the Bloc as their default position.

With the Bloc having no political void to fill, there's no trickle-down benefit to the Parti Québécois, and that's helpful to Jean Charest and the Quebec Liberals, who need a boost in the run-up to a possible fall provincial election.

There won't be a spring election; another Léger poll last week, on provincial voting intentions, was quite eloquent in that regard.

It showed the PQ leading the Liberals 33 per cent to 27 per cent, with the Coalition Avenir Québec at 22 per cent. In the critical francophone segment - 85 per cent of the voting pool - the PQ led the CAQ 40 to 25, with the Liberals trailing at 21 per cent. Which means the Liberals are in big trouble outside Montreal.

It's not that Quebecers are suddenly swooning over Pauline Marois; they're not. But she's shown some steel in the way she pushed back an attempted putsch led by friends of Gilles Duceppe, not to mention her survival of a half-dozen defections from her ungovernable caucus.

But Marois and the PQ have got some traction in recent months, not by running against Charest, but by running against Stephen Harper.

What Marois has done is borrow Duceppe's playbook from the 2008 election, when the Bloc very skilfully bundled a bunch of issues together to make the case that the Harper Conservatives were alien to Quebec values. First there were the cuts to cultural programs, hugely symbolic in Quebec. Then there was the Conservatives' kiddie-crime package in which youth offenders would be locked up with adults. Throw in the environment, gun control and other issues close to the hearts of Quebecers, and the Conservatives went into free fall.

Some of those same issues, notably the Conservatives' environmental policies and the abolition of the long-gun registry, are working for Marois in the spring of 2012. You can add symbolic gestures such as rebranding the Navy and Air Force under the "Royal" prefix and throw in hanging portraits of the Queen in Parliament, not to mention plans for her Diamond Jubilee. Did we mention gay rights, abortion and other issues about a tolerant society?

This is why the Conservatives are at 10 per cent here. And it's one of the reasons Charest is sailing against the wind.

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