Where Harper's majority was lost

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National Post, Thursday, October 16, 2008

There, but for Quebec, went a majority. And Stephen Harper, who can do the math on the back of an envelope, knows it.

The numbers are simple: 133 MPs from the Rest of Canada, plus 10 from Quebec, equals 143, 12 seats short of an absolute majority in the House. Only three weeks ago, Harper's Conservatives were cruising to at least 25 seats in Quebec. Do the math.

Harper had a historic Quebec breakthrough within his grasp, and blew it because two wedge issues that worked for him in the suburbs of English Canada, culture cuts and a crackdown on young offenders, blew up his Quebec campaign.

Quebec's share of the $45-million of cultural program cuts was $15-million. It cost Harper 15 seats, or $1-million a seat. Talk about penny-wise, pound foolish.

Harper, who loves tactics, got played by Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Quebecois and the Quebec media. What had been a referendum on Harper delivering the goods for Quebec and the Bloc having had its day in Ottawa was transformed within days into a referendum on Harper not sharing Quebec values and the Bloc defending them. Harper's Quebec ballot question got flipped to a ballot question on identity that Duceppe couldn't lose.

From "cultural genocide" to "universities of crime," no accusation against Harper was understated. Worse, Duceppe personally vilified him as a "liar," "cheater," "retrograde," "arrogant" and, of course, clone of George W. Bush. Duceppe made Karl Rove look like a choir boy.

Not only did the Conservatives fail to anticipate this line of attack, they completely failed to push back. No attempt was made to refute Duceppe's allegations, or discredit him for practising the politics of personal destruction.

Only when Harper himself showed up last week, suggesting that perhaps Duceppe had crossed the line in demonizing him, did the Conservative campaign pull out of its free fall, stabilize and begin to grow again.

The result was a relief rally for the Conservatives. Instead of the five seats they were looking at a week ago, they managed to win 10 in Quebec on Tuesday. It was a Groundhog Day result for all parties -- with the Bloc at 50 seats, down from 51; the Liberals with 13 seats, as in 2006; the Conservatives at 10, just as they were in the last election; with one NDP incumbent, Tom Mulcair, and an independent, Andre Arthur. Under the circumstances, the Conservatives will take it. While a far cry from the 25-30 seats they had been projected to win, it was enough for them to save the furniture. As in 2006, they won nine of their 10 seats in the Quebec City and eastern Quebec 418 region, plus Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon in the Gatineau riding of Papineau.

Though, again, no Conservatives were elected in the Montreal region, Harper will have a respectable enough number of Quebec faces around his Cabinet table. In the circumstances, even a return to Cabinet of Maxime Bernier cannot be excluded, since he won his riding of Beauce by 25,000 votes. In the Westminster tradition, he has been renewed by his voters and so gets to turn the page.

By becoming unpopular in Quebec, Harper may have also gotten a bounce in other provinces, where Quebecers are sometimes seen as ingrates. After the Quebecois nation thing, resolving the fiscal imbalance, giving Quebec a place at UNESCO, encouraging it to take a lead in trade talks with the European Union, this was Harper's electoral thanks?

Overall, though, Harper got a lot of bad advice on Quebec, and in many instances, none at all. Harper is a very smart guy, and he generally learns from his mistakes. He won't be making these ones again.

He is also capable of striking resonant grace notes. Yesterday, as has been his practice, he read his opening statement at his day-after news conference entirely in French first. In Calgary. Good for him, for not being deterred from posing the elegant gesture, and for keeping on.

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