Tories in the crosshairs

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National Post, Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In Ste. Hyacinthe on Sunday, Gilles Duceppe did not mince his words about Stephen Harper, calling him a "liar," a "cheater," "arrogant" and "retrograde," among other things.

In doing so, Duceppe may have overplayed his hand, but his frontal assault on Harper played very well to the partisan crowd of 2,000 attending the largest Bloc Quebecois rally of the campaign. Duceppe was not only making a deliberate show of strength, he was making a statement that the Bloc will take it to the Conservatives in the Rest of Quebec, the competitive battleground of 50 seats off the island of Montreal.

Duceppe then rushed back to Mont-real to participate in a rally of 5,000 protesters -- trade unionists, artists, environmental activists, aboriginals, pro-choicers -- who came together for a noisy Stop Harper demonstration.

Harper in the crosshairs.

Or, as Alain Dubuc suggested in La Presse, "the boomerang effect."

The tables have been turned on the Conservatives in Quebec and they have no one to blame but themselves.

The Conservatives' cultural cuts and youth crime package may have played well in the suburbs of English-speaking Canada, but they have been bundled together by Duceppe as proof that Conservatives don't understand and share Quebec values.

Harper and his strategists either thought they were impervious to this, or more likely didn't see it coming. But they have failed, and failed miserably, to adjust to it.

The result is that Duceppe's flagging spirits have been revived and the Bloc's lacklustre campaign has been re-charged. The Bloc have always been perceived as the best defenders of Quebec's interests in Ottawa, but now the campaign has been transformed into a referendum on Quebec values, one tilted heavily in favour of the Bloc.

Duceppe's message from Day 1 has been that Quebecers must vote for the Bloc to stop Harper from obtaining a majority. At the outset of the campaign, it sounded hollow. In the end game it has a ring of solidarity, a very strong theme in Quebec.

And Harper? He's being depicted as an insensitive anglophone clod, like the civil servant in the artists' You-Tube attack video, who doesn't understand that a phoque is a seal. Or, as one

French-language cartoon had Harper saying: "Phoque off."

Only three weeks ago, Harper was at cruising speed in Quebec, reminding voters he had delivered the goods for Quebec on issues like the Quebecois nation resolution and resolving the fiscal imbalance, while the Bloc had run its course in Ottawa.

But where the Conservatives had made it about the Bloc, the Bloc has now made it about them, and they've very much made it about Harper.

And then there's the economy, the underlying issue in Quebec, as elsewhere in the country. Not everyone is in the stock market, but everyone has a retirement plan and can read headlines about the meltdown in global markets. Having made the economy his preferred ballot question and having requested extended segments on the economy in last week's leaders' debates, it's incumbent on the Prime Minister to say something about it, other than that the fundamentals of the Canadian economy are sound. He's quite right as far as that goes -- on our banking system, housing sector and fiscal framework.

But as Harper said himself Monday: "We are not an island." For the first time, he was acknowledging the gravity of the situation. If a liquidity crisis sparks a global recession, Canada as a trading nation can hardly be immune to an economic downturn, especially one in the United States.

In Laval on Monday night, Harper tried to turn the tables on Duceppe, saying Quebecers were "tired of these personal attacks, tired of being excluded from government" and that the Bloc "has no plan to confront global economic uncertainty."

Quebecers have moved away from the Conservatives once in this campaign on the identity question. Now Harper is trying to persuade them to move away from the Bloc, and back to the Conservatives, on the economy.

With less than a week to go, and only one more campaign swing in Quebec, it may be an odds-against proposition. It's certainly a leadership moment.

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