A good year for the federalist side

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National Post, Thursday, December 27, 2007

In one of his year-end television interviews, Stephen Harper noted "the separatist movement in Quebec has been in terrible retreat in the last couple of years."

Well, at least he didn't say "separatism is dead," as Pierre Trudeau famously did in 1975, a year before the stunning election of Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois.

The dream of a sovereign Quebec will never die. Yet the Prime Minister isn't wrong in his optimistic assessment. The sovereignty movement has been in retreat for the last two years, and suffered serious losses on two fronts in 2007.

As Harper pointed out, the PQ finished third in the Quebec election on March 26, and its share of the popular vote fell below 30%, the party's worst showing since its first election in 1970.

In Ottawa, the Bloc Quebecois continues what may prove to be an irreversible decline in the polls. After returning to 1993 levels of support with 54 seats and 49% of the vote in the 2004 federal election, the Bloc fell to 51 seats and 42% of the vote in 2006, when it had expected to cross the psychological barrier of 50% of the popular vote -- a number that has eluded the sovereignty movement in every provincial and federal election, as well as two referendums, going back to the founding of the PQ 40 years ago.

In this regard, the 2006 election was a seminal event. With his Quebec City campaign speech on "open federalism," and his subsequent beachhead of 10 seats, Harper smashed the polarization of the Quebec vote between the federalist and separatist camps, as well as the symbiotic relationship that had worked to the mutual benefit of the Bloc and the Liberals.

Since then, Harper is seen as having delivered on the promise of his Quebec City speech, notably on resolving the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces with significant increases in equalization and transfer payments in the 2007 budget. His November, 2006, resolution in the Commons, recognizing the existence of "the Quebecois nation within a united Canada," was not only an unexpected bonus for Harper with Quebecers, it was a tactical masterstroke that left the Bloc gasping for air.

Then, last May, Gilles Duceppe announced he was running for the PQ leadership on a Friday, only to endorse Pauline Marois the next day. He later said he didn't know what he was thinking. It was a very revealing moment: The voters learned he couldn't take a punch. Moreover, if he doesn't want to be in Ottawa, why should the voters keep sending him there?

Since then, Duceppe has clearly been spoiling to defeat Harper's minority government at the first opportunity, so that he can wage his fifth and last campaign, and get on with the rest of his life.

The September byelections were a very bad moment for the Bloc. In Outremont, they finished third behind the NDP, which snatched an historic Liberal seat in a riding where the Bloc had always been competitive. And in the two byelections off the island of Montreal, the Conservatives won Jonquiere in the sovereignist heartland of the Saguenay by a 2-1 margin, while falling only four points short of the Bloc in Ste. Hyacinthe.

A majority of francophone voters in these two ridings supported a party led by a guy from Alberta. In the 50 ridings off the island of Montreal, the Conservatives have replaced the Liberals as the federalist alternative.

In recent Quebec polls, the Bloc and Conservatives have been tied at 31%. But there is a difference between 31% on the way up and 31% on the way down. - L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy Options magazine, and author of From Bourassa to Bourassa:Wilderness to Restoration, a narrative history of the Quebec Liberal party.

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