The new Tory heartland

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National Post, Friday, August 1, 2008

The travelling summer fair was already here when the political circus rolled into this town that time forgot, just west of Quebec City.

But there were 1,500 people waiting at the local arena for Stephen Harper, a show of strength arranged Wednesday evening by Jacques Gourde, the sitting Conservative MP for the riding of Lotbiniere-Chutes-de-la-Chaudiere, 30 km west of South Shore Levis, where the party's national caucus met over the last two days. The former Bloc Quebecois member, Odina Desrochers, whom Gourde defeated in 2006, was among the friendly faces in the rural crowd.

The road to a Conservative majority runs through towns like this, off Highway 20 between Quebec and Montreal. It's the new Conservative heartland, on both sides of the St. Lawrence, from west of Quebec City to Labrador on the North Shore and the Gaspe on the South Shore. There are about half as many voters as in Toronto's 416 area, but half again as many seats in Quebec's 418 area. With the Conservatives' emergence as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc, it's the biggest prize in play on the entire electoral map of Canada.

These rural voters are just as receptive to Harper's core message on crime, taxes and agriculture as the voters are in the small towns of Ontario and Alberta.

Harper's threat to the Bloc is his appeal to these Quebec voters as autonomists, not sovereignists. And there was no mistaking his pitch on Wednesday night:

"The true nationalists love Quebec without wanting to break up the Canadian federation," he declared. "The true nationalists don't want to destroy, they want to build."

It was Harper's biggest applause line in a rather long-winded 40-minute speech, bringing the sweltering crowd to its feet.

The Bloc was clearly in Harper's sights. In a highly partisan speech, no attack on Stephane Dion and his proposed carbon tax went without a sideswipe at the Bloc, "who want to cut our energy consumption in half, it's even worse than what's being proposed by Mr. Dion."

The Conservatives have done more in Quebec in the last three years in government, he claimed, than the Liberals in their previous 13 years in office, and more than the Bloc could ever do "in 113 years in opposition."

This is a timeless theme of Quebec politics, being du bon bord, literally and figuratively on the right side of power. It drives the Bloc crazy in the House, and it has real resonance in towns like this.

Harper also threw down the gauntlet to Dion, daring him to defeat the government when the session resumes next month. "If Mr. Dion wants a real debate" over his carbon tax proposal, Harper said, "not only among the politicians but an open debate among everyone, all he has to do is follow through on his latest threat to force an election. Once again, Mr. Dion threatens to bring down the government. But we've heard this song now for nearly two years."

And here came the soundbite from the speech, delivered in English: "Mr. Dion must decide to fish or cut bait."

Calling Dion's carbon tax proposal "complicated, almost incomprehensible," Harper asked if the Liberals thought "another tax was the solution to all the problems."

And then he came to his bottom line: "I give you my word that as long as I'm prime minister, there will be no new taxes."

Read my lips, no new taxes.

While the Liberals are careful to explain that Dion's proposal would be revenue neutral, and wouldn't apply at the pump, Harper is clearly having none of it. A tax is a tax, he said. And a new tax is just that.

It was the first speech of the next campaign.

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