Crisis in Ottawa: How it's playing in Quebec

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National Post, Friday, December 5, 2008

Meanwhile, back at the Quebec election, Jean Charest has been cruising toward a majority in next Monday's vote. The question is whether this week's tumultuous turn of events in Ottawa has enhanced or diminished his prospects going into the final weekend of the campaign.

In the beginning, the chaos in Ottawa, and the prospect of the minority Conservatives being overthrown by an opposition coup, worked to Charest's advantage, reinforcing his argument that this is what happens when there are "three hands on the wheel" in a minority House.

But when Stephen Harper launched a ferocious counterattack on Tuesday, branding the challengers as a "separatist coalition," the implications for the Quebec campaign instantly changed. While the PM successfully tarred the Liberals and NDP with the separatist brush in the rest of Canada, he was playing with fire in Quebec. Then it became a question of political legitimacy regarding the Bloc's very presence in Ottawa with 49 of the province's 75 seats in Parliament, and even Charest had to defend the Bloc's right to be there.

Then Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois put out a communique endorsing the coalition as good for Quebec, and Gilles Duceppe began touting the gains Quebec would make with the Bloc propping up a Liberal-NDP government, a step forward on the road to sovereignty.

While Duceppe's comments had an incendiary effect in Englishspeaking Canada, they lifted the flagging spirits of the PQ campaign.

Then Harper, unaccountably and most irresponsibly, poured more oil on the fire in his address to the nation Wednesday night. Four times, he referred to "the separatists," as in "this is no time for backroom deals with the separatists."

In the French version of the tape, he referred to them by the kinder, gentler term of les souverainistes, and of course got caught out on it within minutes. Never has a prime minister turned a state occasion such as an address to the nation to such a blunt partisan purpose. Harper's five-minute address was totally inadequate and completely tone-deaf, lacking any admission that everyone could learn something from this, beginning with himself.

While Harper clearly squandered an important opportunity to make things right in the country, he was saved by the comic opera over the Liberals' near failure to get Stephane Dion's grainy home video tape on the air. At least when there's a coup in a banana republic, they know how to take over the TV station.

Another Stephen Harper, one with a sense of occasion, showed up outside Rideau Hall yesterday and calmed the troubled waters, reaching out elegantly to the opposition parties, and acknowledging the Bloc's legitimate role in Ottawa. He looked what he didn't look like only the night before-- a prime minister.

Back on Parliament Hill, Gilles Duceppe had an agenda of grievance that had nothing to do with prorogation, and everything to do with the Quebec election. Harper's separatist scare tactics, he said, were "the worst attack against Quebec since the days of Meech Lake." Those are emotional code words, coming form the leader of a party founded on the death of Meech in 1990.

Charest and his advisors have been keeping an apprehensive eye on Ottawa, all too aware of the tinderbox implications of Harper's provocative rhetoric.

As of Thursday morning, one top Charest adviser said they were seeing "some volatility" in their internal polls, but no movement in voting intention from the Liberals to the PQ. There will be another round of public polls coming out in La Presse today, and a Leger marketing poll for the Quebecor media chain and The Gazette tomorrow. There's a strong sense in the political class that Charest has maintained a double-digit lead over the PQ, with Mario Dumont and the ADQ badly marginalized in third place.

That being the case, Charest is firmly in majority territory, poised to become the first Quebec premier since Maurice Duplessis to win three elections in a row. That covers a lot of history, from Jean Lesage and Robert Bourassa to Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard.

That's where Charest stands on the last weekend of the campaign, at the doorstep of history.

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