Quebec: The new Tory stronghold

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National Post, Friday, August 29, 2008

Assuming Stephen Harper has Quebec voting intention numbers in his pocket similar to those from this week's CROP poll, we now know why he is rushing to an election: He thinks he would win it.

At 31% in Quebec in Wednesday's CROP poll in La Presse, Harper's Conservatives are in a statistical deadlock with the Bloc Quebecois at 30%, with the Liberals trailing at 20% and the NDP holding steady at 14%.

When these numbers are translated to seat projections, the Conservatives would be looking at 30 seats in Quebec, a gain of nearly 20 from the 11 ridings they hold now. Most, if not all, of these projected Conservative gains would occur off the island of Montreal, at the expense of the Bloc.

It's the regional and demographic breakouts, along with the large sample of 1,000 respondents, that make CROP such an authoritative polling source in Quebec. And a look inside these numbers tells the whole story.

In the key francophone demographic-- 85% of all voters in Quebec -- the Bloc leads the Conservatives 35% to 31%, with the Liberals at 16%.

This means that in the crucial battleground of 50 ridings outside Montreal, the Conservatives are the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc, with the Liberals completely out of the race.

In Quebec City, CROP points to a Conservative sweep at 46%, with the Bloc at 25% and the Liberals at 14% in the city where Stephane Dion was born, raised and attended university. Elsewhere in Quebec, the Conservatives lead the Bloc 35% to 33%, with the Liberals at 17%.

Even in the greater Montreal region, including the bedroom communities on the North and South Shore of the city, the Conservatives are tied with the Liberals at 24%, trailing the Bloc at 27%. Only on the island of Montreal itself, a historic Liberal fortress, are the Liberals ahead of the Conservatives.

More good news for Harper: The satisfaction rate with his government is up by six points over last month to 52%, while on the provincial side, satisfaction with the Liberal Charest government has reached a historic high of 61%. There is no mood, at either level, for a change of government.

Best prime minister? Harper is at 35%, Jack Layton, who has no chance of becoming prime minister sits at 24% and Dion, the unfavourite son who could become prime minister, is at 15%.

So Harper's fundamentals in Quebec are solid. And having traded places with the Liberals as the federalist alternative outside Montreal, the Conservatives could argue they have become the block-the-Bloc party, the very case the Liberals used to make. Moreover, if these Conservative numbers held or grew in a campaign, an echo effect could result in Ontario, where voters historically prefer national parties with good prospects in Quebec.

In seizing the moment with an election call, Harper would obviously be pre-empting the return of a rambunctious House that could fall at any time, with inconvenient committee sittings examining the in-and-out campaign finance file, as well as the Julie Couillard tell-all book scheduled for mid-October release, to say nothing of a shrinking surplus in a slowing economy.

The downside is equally obvious. Harper would be flouting his own government's fixed election law. Though it is only statute law with no effect on constitutional custom -- it specifically upholds the governor-general's right to dissolve Parliament at any time -- the spirit of the law does not differentiate between majority and minority situations.

If Harper is claiming that the House has become dysfunctional, perhaps he should allow it to be exposed to the public as such, instead of calling an election during parliamentary recess. If he is asking for good faith meetings with opposition leaders, then perhaps those meetings should at least take place.

Furthermore, the Conservatives are getting pummelled in the Quebec media on the $44-million of cuts to cultural programs, the sort of thing normally announced in the first year of a majority government, not the last days of a minority one.

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