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National Post, Friday, September 1, 2006

No doubt about it, Stephen Harper has taken a pounding in Quebec this summer.

The worst of it was the July war between Israel and Hezbollah, in which the Prime Minister clearly supported the Israelis. In Quebec, home to an important Lebanese community, Harper was pummelled in the French-language media. Nor did he receive much credit for his government organizing the evacuation of 12,000 Lebanese Canadians from the war zone, the largest rescue operation in Canadian history.

Worse, he was widely perceived as following George W. Bush's lead on the war, and that doesn't work for Harper in Quebec any better than it does in the rest of Canada.

Then there's the shrinking support for Canada's mission in Afghanistan. Nowhere has it shrunk more than in Quebec since the mission was re-profiled from patrolling the streets of Kabul to taking it to the Taliban in the Kandahar region. Pacifism has deep roots in Quebec and, here again, Harper is perceived as doing Bush's bidding in the war on terror, even though it is a NATO mission authorized by the previous Liberal government.

Then there's the Kyoto Accord, whose emission-reduction targets are clearly unattainable, but which is highly popular in Quebec. While Kyoto is a process rather than a product, it has huge brand equity in Quebec. Harper's made-in-Canada solution, beginning with the Clean Air Act he will introduce with the return of Parliament, needs to answer the question "If not Kyoto, what?"

Finally, there was Harper's decision not to attend the International AIDS conference in Toronto. Normally this would have been a one-day story, but conference organizers and AIDS activists refused to let go of it, and the story dragged on for a week. In a province where support for gay rights is a given and support for same sex marriage is high, this was seen as a snub.

Those are enough negative coverage weights for a year, let alone a summer, and Harper's poll numbers have taken a huge hit in Quebec.

In the latest SES Research poll quarterly poll last week, the Conservatives were down nine points in Quebec to 26%, the Bloc Quebecois were up five points to 42%, while the Liberals gained three points to 22%.

And in a CROP poll in La Presse yesterday, the Bloc was at 36%, the Conservatives at 24% and the Liberals at 21%, also a nine-point hit for the governing Tories.

But the good news for Harper may be that the bad news is fully priced into the stock.

The other point to consider is the Groundhog Day effect. These numbers are within one percentage point for all parties of their election results and would produce exactly the same distribution of seats.

The Groundhog Day effect is also apparent in the national numbers, with the Conservatives at 36%, the Liberals at 30%, the NDP at 18% and the Bloc at 11%, again all within a point of their election days scores. This would translate to another minority Conservative House of about 125 seats, 30 short of a majority.

If the road to a Conservative majority still lies through Quebec, Harper will have to get back on domestic politics, an agenda that was broadening his base in Quebec, and elsewhere, in the spring.

As SES pollster Nik Nanos says: "He has to get back to what works for him. He has to get back on the brand."

In Quebec, that means Harper has to deliver the goods on the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. This was a centrepiece of Harper's open federalism speech in Quebec City during the campaign, along with his pledge not to invoke the federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction without the support of a majority of provinces. In Quebec, the fiscal imbalance is regarded as the sixth point on Harper's top five priorities list.

Since the provinces couldn't agree on whether the solution was an enhanced equalization formula to recipient provinces or increased transfer payments to all of them, Harper gets to call this shot by himself. Whatever emerges from talks with the provinces, it's important that Harper and Premier Jean Charest agree that the problem has been solved.

The prospects for both in Quebec, in their elections expected in 2007, will be significantly enhanced by success on this file.

In Quebec, Harper defined himself during the campaign as a classical federalist who would respect the division of powers in the Constitution. He needs to get on that domestic message. It resonates much better in Quebec than the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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