Harper cost Charest

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National Post, Thursday, December 11, 2008

How do you turn a big majority into a small one? That's easy. Just have Stephen Harper go on television and denounce "the separatist coalition."

It worked very well for Harper last week, polarizing public opinion in English Canada against the attempted coup by the opposition coalition, including the Bloc Quebecois. But in Quebec, awash in a provincial election campaign, it had an opposite effect, though this wasn't captured by CROP and Leger polls, published on Friday and Saturday respectively, which showed Jean Charest's Liberals leading by 16 and 13 points going into the final weekend of the election. To all appearances, Charest was cruising to a big majority of at least 75 seats in the 125-member Quebec legislature. In the end, he won what's called a "short majority" of 66 seats, only three more than the minimum required for a majority.

Because of their surplus votes in non-francophone ridings, the Liberals always need to win by seven points -- a converted touchdown -- to gain a majority. And Charest just covered the point spread, with the Liberals winning 42% of the vote to 35% for the PQ. (Mario Dumont's ADQ captured 17%, resulting in just seven seats, Dumont's resignation and the loss of recognized party status in the National Assembly.)

What happened between the weekend polls and Monday's vote? Well, the weather for one thing-- the coldest election day since 1944 was one factor in keeping voter turnout to a shocking 57%, 14 points below last year's vote, and the lowest turnout in Quebec history. Apathy among some voters over a dull campaign, and anger among others over the calling of an early election, were also factors. Moreover, overconfidence was clearly in evidence among Liberal voters, who stayed at home rather than braving the bitter cold because they believed a Charest majority was a slam dunk.

But the only political factor over the last four days was the blowback from Harper's separatist scare tactic in English Canada, which both the Bloc and PQ turned to their rhetorical advantage. Just as Gilles Duceppe portrayed cultural cuts as an attack on Quebecois values during the federal campaign, so he torqued Harper's broadsides against the separatist coalition as an attack on Quebec. PQ leader Pauline Marois gleefully jumped on the same message track. And Harper's reference to the separatists in English, and les souverainistes, as they have long styled themselves, in French, did not pass unnoticed either.

From the moment Harper launched his fierce counterattack against the coup plotters in the House last Tuesday, through his rhetorically inappropriate address to the nation the following evening, Charest's campaign advisors were extremely nervous. While Charest defended the legitimacy of the Bloc's role in Ottawa, and played down Harper's choice of words as "circumstantial," the Liberal war room was terrified of Brockville-style Quebec flag stomping or burning at anti-coalition rallies last weekend. Such a worst-case scenario, which would have gone to YouTube in minutes and led all the French-language newscasts, might well have deprived Charest of his majority.

In the event, Charest's short majority makes his life more difficult in dealing with Harper, just as it definitely makes Harper's life much more difficult in Quebec.

With a reinvigorated PQ opposition newly touting the sovereignty option -- Marois addressed the issue more often in her election night speech than she did during the entire campaign -- Charest will be forced to strike a more aggressive posture as the defender of Quebec's interests in Canada. In his speech on Monday night, Charest took the high road, noting in English that serious times require serious leadership. But at next month's first ministers' meeting on the economy, he will be taking a firm position on what Quebec needs in the Jan. 27 budget. And Quebec's support of the budget, or not, will be a factor in any question of confidence on it.

As for Harper, all the political capital he worked so hard to accumulate in Quebec has been squandered by the events of the last two months, first in the federal campaign, and now in the provincial election. On the Quebec issue, he's 0-2.

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