Bienvenue, Monsieur Harper

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National Post, Saturday, January 21, 2006

A month ago, no one would have predicted that Stephen Harper would be in Quebec three days out of four in the last week of the campaign.

But there he was on Tuesday morning, as the sun rose over the gabled rooftops of the Chateau Frontenac, on a ferry crossing the St. Lawrence from Quebec City to Levis. Wearing a made-in-Quebec Kanuk parka, he posed for a postcard perfect photo-op with his wife, Laureen Teskey -- a picture that dominated the front page of Le Soleil the next day, under a banner headline about the hemorrhaging of Bloc Quebecois support to the Conservatives.

On the day of the ferry ride, Harper had awakened to the endorsement of La Presse, and the news in Le Soleil that two star Conservative candidates were leading in the "418" region in Quebec City and the South Shore by a margin of at least 2-1. On Wednesday, he returned to Montreal from Ontario to be greeted by a huge headline in La Presse announcing the Bloc was in "perte de vitesse" and had dropped to 39% in a CROP poll, with the Conservatives rising to 25%. That afternoon, officially pushing the panic button, the Bloc rolled out Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair, appealing to Quebecers to rally around the sovereignty movement. Thursday afternoon, in full panic mode, the Bloc put out a press release saying Harper would endanger Bill 101, Quebec's cherished Charter of the French language. "That's a bit of a reach," Harper said by phone from his bus on tour in southern Ontario.

Harper is now poised to win at least six seats in Quebec and perhaps even move into double digits. As pollster Nik Nanos of SES Research has observed, the Conservatives have been "growing in two phases -- phase one at the expense of the Liberals, phase two at the expense of the Bloc."

In yesterday's CPAC-SES tracking poll, the Conservatives had moved up to 26% in Quebec, the BQ was at 44%, with the Liberals were down to 18%, most of it on the island of Montreal. Today's CanWest Ipsos-Reid poll reports a 46-27 Bloc-Tory spread, an efficient number for the Conservatives because their surge is mostly off-island, where there are 50 seats.

On Wednesday night, in the worst weather since the 1998 ice storm, some 1,000 people crowded a Montreal hotel convention hall for Harper's biggest event of the campaign.

"The Quebec events, almost from the beginning, have been the biggest thrill of the campaign," says Harper. "Our people have waited so long and worked so hard, they're so excited you almost want to dance with them."

Only a month ago, when he came to Montreal before Christmas, barely 150 people -- mainly candidates and their organizers -- attended another evening rally.

What has happened since? How has it come together so dramatically for Harper since the holidays?

It's actually the fruit of years of hard work, and weeks of timely good luck.

Harper has invested heavily in Quebec, returning again and again, especially to the Quebec City region, in ways the news media never noticed or appreciated.

After being shut out in the 2004 election, and winning only 8% of the province's vote, he only intensified his efforts. He recruited quality candidates such as Josee Verner in Quebec City and Maxime Bernier in the Beauce -- people with their own networks -- and encouraged them to build their own organizations to compensate for the chronic weakness of the Conservative ground game. He also succeeded in uniting the rival factions of the old Progressive Conservative Party and the Action democratique du Quebec, who were constantly at war over the spoils of defeat.

And about a year and a half ago, he began calling Brian Mulroney, who knows more about winning elections, especially in Quebec, than any living Conservative. He told Harper two things.

First, on the rebranding of the Conservative party by moving it to the centre: "Stephen, it's not complicated. You just have to figure out how to get your furniture from Stornoway to 24 Sussex." Harper began to move the furniture at his policy convention in Montreal last year when he took social issues like abortion off the table, as well as kooky Reform ideas such as recall referenda.

Secondly, at a low moment for Harper: "Don't worry about Quebec. It won't move until Ontario moves. And then it will move right near the end."

That's the echo effect that Harper has been working hard on this week, moving from Quebec to Ontario and back again all week, before flying west to close the campaign in British Columbia this weekend.

Just eight weeks ago, Harper stood at only 10% in the polls in Quebec, and on day one of the campaign was asked how he felt about forming a minority government without representation from Quebec. "I intend to win seats in Quebec," he replied. Almost no one took him seriously.

The 56-day campaign, rather than the normal 35-day writ, turned out to be a major break for Harper. It allowed him to spend the first half of the race on policy rollouts that made him a candidate of ideas rather than an angry young man running against scandal. The policy phase also inoculated him against the inevitable Liberal attempts to demonize him. (How could there be a hidden agenda when it was all out in the open?) And in Quebec, the policy phase gave voters something to look at. Harper's "open federalism" speech in Quebec City gave them a respectable place to go.

His child care platform, promising $100 a month to parents for each child under six, was a big winner in Quebec. With only 20% of the pre-school kids in the country, Quebec has 50% of the daycare space. And it's highly subsidized space, costing voters only $7 a day. On top of that, Harper is proposing to send them a cheque for $100 each month.

The promise to cut the GST is another break for consumers in Quebec. With the 7% federal sales tax and the 7.5% Quebec sales tax on top of it, Quebecers pay a 14.5% consumption in addition to the highest marginal tax rates in the country.

Then in his Quebec City speech, Harper answered Premier Jean Charest's agenda for renewing federalism. He said Quebec could be represented with Canada in forums like UNESCO, within its constitutional jurisdiction, along the lines of the Mulroney-Johnson formula that created la Francophonie in 1985. Harper also acknowledged the existence of the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, which has always been denied by Ottawa.

That was enough to get Charest talking about his "participation" in the campaign at a moment when he was already incensed at Martin for transforming the election into a referendum that assumed his defeat in the next provincial election. The referendum strategy has now backfired so badly on the Liberals that, off the island of Montreal, it has polarized the election between the Bloc and the Conservatives, with the Liberals completely out of the race.

But even more interesting than Charest's response was Martin's, abandoning his previous position on Quebec's representation abroad in favour of the Trudeauesque position that "Canada speaks with one voice, not two and not 10." That may have been the moment that Quebecers gave up on Martin, in whom they had once invested high hopes for a new beginning with Ottawa.

The Tories moved up to 15% in the CPAC-SES tracking poll even before Christmas. And over the holidays, something else happened. Around the table of the Quebec family, people talked about the election. Not for long, but long enough to agree that maybe Harper wasn't so bad after all, and that he definitely had some interesting things to say.

Then, just before the January leaders' debates, Ontario moved in the polls and Quebecers took notice. "Ontario moved first," notes Claude Charron, the popular TVA political analyst and former Levesque era Cabinet minister.

In the Jan. 9 and 10 debates, a Quebec focus group noted that while Gilles Duceppe definitely won the French one, Harper was a solid second. Women voters in particular were taken by his calm tone and measured demeanour, and by the fact that he was polite and didn't demean his opponents.

By last week, the Conservatives had become a momentum play. In a mid-week poll, 83% said it was time for a change -- a bad number for the Bloc, a party of protest that can never be in power. "The place of Quebecers isn't in the stands, it's on the ice," Harper says to applause wherever he goes.

Harper acknowledges it's one thing to rise in the polls, and another to deliver votes ton the ballot box. The Conservatives have a built or borrowed a ground game in about 15 ridings where they have become competitive. For the rest, their growth in the polls has outpaced their ability to deliver it, unless it is rising to the point where it can deliver itself.

"It's going to be a challenge," Harper says, "it's not going to be easy."

Still, where Canadians once feared a worst- case scenario for the country, with a shaky Conservative government lacking any members from Quebec, we are now looking at a very different outcome: a change of government with participation from Quebec.

Somehow, that seems like a healthy prospect for federalism.

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