Stephen Harper's Quebec

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National Post, Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois once had a symbiotic relationship: Both sides had an interest in framing the federal ballot as a choice of country.

But under Jean Chretien, this branding bargain was always implicit. Paul Martin changed that, transforming the election into an explicit referendum on "separatism."

The awkward Liberal message was communicated in a language no one has spoken in Quebec for at least two decades. "Separatism" -- what's that? Even the English-language media politely refer to "sovereignty" and "sovereignists." The Liberals were trapped in a time warp of their own making.

Quebecers knew the election wasn't about sovereignty, and that the Liberals were just trying to change the topic from the Gomery report. They knew Premier Jean Charest didn't even need to call an election until 2008, against an untested Parti Quebecois opponent, Andre Boisclair, with unresolved character issues about his past drug abuse.

Charest didn't appreciate having his moral authority undermined in the middle of tough public-service negotiations. Essentially, Martin branded him a loser. It apparently never occurred to Martin that, since the federal Liberal organization got blown up by Adscam, Charest controlled the only Big Red Machine left on the ground in Quebec. By the end of the campaign, its non-Montreal cogs were spinning on behalf of the federalist party with the best chance of winning -- les bleus.

The only one who fell for Martin's ploy was Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, who was only too happy to referendize the election, setting the bar for himself at 50% plus one, a moral majority never achieved by the sovereignty movement in any vote.

But Quebecers don't like referendums, even if they show up for them, because they are divisive by nature, and because the last one in 1995 was searing to the soul. In other words, Duceppe asked for a winning condition for something people didn't want. He also struck a triumphalist note, in one breath saying the Liberals would be wiped off the map and in the next dismissing the Conservatives as irrelevant.

The Liberals' desperation was offset by the Bloc's arrogance, creating an opening for Stephen Harper. His daily policy rollouts before Christmas gave voters something to look at. His Quebec City speech on "open federalism" gave them a respectable place for soft nationalists to go.

The Conservatives made a strategic decision to have both their policies and Harper's brand of federalism on offer before Christmas, so Quebecers could discuss them en famille over the holidays. They did, and many decided he wasn't so bad after all.

Far from being a choice of country, the election had become a choice of policies, such as child care. Especially effective was Harper's promise of a role for Quebec in appropriate international organizations like UNESCO. This contrasted with Martin's repudiation of his own position in favour of the Trudeauesque mantra that "Canada speaks with one voice, not two and not 10."

This was the moment that Quebecers gave up on Martin, who once held the promise of renewing federalism.

By the Jan. 10 French language debate, Harper had moved from 10% to 20% in the polls, and had become the target of both Martin and Duceppe. In his closing statement, Harper extended la main tendue, the outstretched hand, to Quebecers, offering them "pride and power." Duceppe, by contrast, went dark, saying parties "from Toronto and Calgary" could "never respond to the aspirations of Quebecers."

Two nights later, Harper's momentum in Quebec grew again following a remarkable half-hour interview with Bernard Derome, the Radio-Canada news anchor who's interviewed every PM since Pierre Trudeau. Just being in the same hotel suite with Derome enhanced Harper's stature. But he went further by projecting a calm and measured explanation of his policies that indicated a growing mastery of French.

By the last week of the campaign, Duceppe began to sound as desperate as Martin.

First, the Bloc brought in Boisclair to implore sovereignists to rally around the cause. Then Duceppe said Harper would endanger Bill 101. Then Duceppe portrayed Harper as a threat to daycare. And finally, on the Saturday before the vote, Bloc newspaper ads said Quebecers could never trust someone from Calgary, a city depicted with a cowboy hat on its head.

From Winnipeg and the West Coast, Harper replied in French, to resounding cheers from his huge English-speaking audiences, that while he might be "the guy from Calgary," he offered Quebecers something Duceppe could not -- power.

And so on January 23, Quebecers said good riddance to the Liberals. Outside its last bastion of Montreal, the party was reduced to rubble. To the Bloc, Quebecers sent a message not to take them for granted. The Bloc has been hit by what Duceppe calls a "mysterious blue wave." Winning conditions? Not at 42% of the popular vote, that's for sure. There's no mystery about that.

Harper has smashed Quebec's stale polarization. Offered a viable alternative to the morally bankrupt Liberals and a dead-end party of protest, 25% of Quebecers decided to take a test drive with Harper, with 10 Quebec MPs in his government.

Nothing less than a seismic shift has occurred on Quebec's political landscape. If Harper can deliver the goods, we may be at the beginning of a fundamental political realignment.

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