The Liberals' unholy trinity in Quebec

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National Post, Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In Quebec, the Liberals have three problems in this election -- the brand, the messenger and the message.

A series of self-inflicted wounds over the last quarter century have left the Liberal brand in very bad shape in Quebec, the province that has been a pillar of Liberal dynasties for more than a century. The party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chretien finds itself, under the leadership of another Quebecer named Dion, headed to third place in this election behind the Bloc Quebecois and the Conservatives.

The brand has been beaten down among francophones, beginning with the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1982, the role of the Liberals in the demise of Meech Lake in 1990, the improvised sponsorship program that followed the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum and the disastrous consequences of the sponsorship scandal in the elections of 2004 and 2006.

Thus the Liberals, who won 74 of 75 Quebec seats in Pierre Trudeau's final election in 1980, were reduced to 13 seats and 21% of the vote in 2006. Stephane Dion inherited a very bad situation, none of it of his making, with the exception of the Clarity Act, which clarified the ground rules for separation. It made him a popular figure in English speaking Canada, though not in his own province, where he has long been regarded as the bad cop of federalism.

For as long as the Quebec electorate was polarized around a question of country, with the Bloc as the sovereignist team and the Liberals carrying the federalist banner, both parties benefitted. But when Stephen Harper established a beachhead in Quebec in 2006, offering both frustrated federalists and soft nationalists a respectable alternative under the Conservative slogan of "open federalism," that was a paradigm shift.

Both the Liberals and the Bloc have been badly served by events since then, notably the resolving of the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, whose existence Dion stoutly denied even as Gilles Duceppe demanded it be addressed. But the real game changer was Harper's parliamentary resolution recognizing, as he says in his campaign core speech, "that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada."

This line comes at the end of his recitation of the Conservative achievement list, with audiences nodding off. Harper usually delivers it in a flat monotone, without any rhetorical force or conviction, but it invariably wakes audiences up and brings spontaneous applause.

Even though Dion and Duceppe both supported the resolution, Harper gets all the political credit for it. The fact that an Albertan did it, rather than a Quebecer, works even better for him.

As for the Liberal message, Dion's Green Shift ought to resonate in Quebec, where the environment is a big issue. But it's one thing to be in favour of saving the planet, and another to pay for it. Dion's green plan isn't playing any better in Quebec than elsewhere, and it isn't any easier to explain in French than in English. Even Dion's early advocacy of "ending Canada's combat role" in Afghanistan hasn't won him points in Quebec, where opposition to the mission runs higher than anywhere else in Canada. And now that Harper has announced the end of the mission in 2011, he's effectively taken it off the table as a campaign issue in Quebec.

Then there's the disarray within the Liberal ranks in Quebec, where there's no money, very little organization and constant fighting over nominations and deployment of the party's limited resources. The climate of recriminations is ruinous and Dion's Quebec campaign chair, Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette, gets a lot of the blame.

All of which might be overlooked if the Liberals had a smooth and efficient leader's tour, with the leader delivering a coherent message, but they don't. In his opening statement, Dion said, in French, that he was as much a Quebec nationalist as Duceppe and declared that he went into politics for the unity of the country in English. Uh-huh. His English syntax and pronunciation remain, regrettably, a painful work in progress.

The Quebec media had a field day with last week's story about the Liberal plane not being ready until the end of Day Four of the campaign, not to mention the Green Shift guy flying around in a 30-year-old gas guzzler.

The Liberals wasted two precious days on the bus campaigning in three of the safest Liberal seats in the country -- Westmount, NDG and Dion's own riding of St. Laurent-- all in Montreal. Perhaps that's because there aren't any safe Liberal ridings off the island, and very few competitive ones in a 50-seat battleground between the Bloc and the Conservatives.

Norman Atkins, when he was running the Big Blue Machine for Brian Mulroney in 1984, used to say that when a party is in opposition, the only thing the voters have to judge its competence to govern is the competence of its campaign.

That starts with the leader's tour. And ends with the leader.

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