The Tories' new math

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National Post, Friday, July 25, 2008

Here's the new math of a Conservative majority: 418 plus 905 equals 155.

The first two numbers are the areas codes for the Quebec City and suburban Toronto regions, which are the keys to Conservative hopes to graduating to a majority of 155 seats in the next election.

That would be an increase of 31 seats over their performance in the last election, and the easier road to a Conservative majority lies through Quebec, particularly the 418 region where they established a beachhead in 2006. There are 50 seats off the island of Montreal, more than 30 of them are in the 418 where the national Conservative caucus will hold its summer meeting next week.

The choice of venue, Quebec City and Levis, is nominally to join in the celebration of Quebec 400, and should provide plenty of photo-ops for Stephen Harper. But more to the point, the Conservatives want to leverage their strength in 418 going forward to the next campaign.

The 905 region is another story. The Conservatives now hold five seats in the suburban belt around Toronto. They haven't won a seat in Toronto itself -- area code 416 -- since the 1988 election. Every one of their remaining 35 seats in Ontario is outside the Greater Toronto Area. This is not the party of the GTA.

But in Quebec there are now only two parties in the race for the 50 seats outside Montreal -- the Bloc Quebecois, who hold most of them, and the Conservatives, who are challenging them as the competitive federalist party.

The Conservatives won eight of their 10 Quebec seats in 418, and have since picked up another there in a byelection in the Saguenay region.

And that's the point. The 418 isn't just Quebec City, but the North Shore and the South Shore, from Beauce to the Gaspe. The area is at least 95% French-speaking, and has a history of voting massively one way or another.

In the 1988 free trade election, for example, Brian Mulroney won every seat in 418 from Quebec City to the Gaspe.

"How many ridings in 418?" he was asked not long ago.

"I think it's 33," he replied. "How many did you win in '88?" "Thirty-three," he replied.

Similarly, Pierre Trudeau swept the region in the 1980 election, and the Bloc scored its own regional landslide in 2004.

In the Quebec City region itself, the Conservatives consistently lead the Bloc by as much as 20 points, pointing to a sweep of what's known as Quebec metro. For Harper, the challenge and opportunity is to grow from second to first place in the rest of 418.

The opportunity comes to a sitting prime minister who can say he has delivered on the promise of his famous Quebec City speech -- the open federalism speech of Dec. 19, 2005 -- which proved to be the decisive turning point of the last campaign in Quebec.

Harper has delivered on his promise to address the fiscal imbalance with the provinces, a place for Quebec at UNESCO and, not least, his pledge not to extend the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

And as a bonus, there's the Quebec nation thing. Every time Harper speaks in Quebec, this is the mention that always brings applause. For Quebecers, it represents not only recognition "within a united Canada," but a turning of the page. As a Westerner, he gets even more credit for delivering that for Quebec.

But his challenges are also real. The resignation of Max Bernier, the Quebec star who fell to Earth, was not a great moment for Harper's government. Bernier will be around next week -- the caucus is in his backyard of the Beauce. More lies ahead with the publication of Julie Couillard's sleep-and-tell memoir in the fall.

Quebecers also have the same reserve as other Canadians about Harper's mean streak, and remain open to the suggestion of a hidden agenda. And at mid-summer it's too early to say if Stephane Dion is making any inroads in his home province with his Green Shift plan on climate change.

But for the most part, Harper can look forward to next week. As a prime minister in search of a majority, he should dial 418.

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