How Harper can come back in Quebec

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National Post, Saturday, February 14, 2009

Everyone knows that Stephen Harper is in a lot of trouble in Quebec. The question is whether there's a road back for him, a way to rebuild the precious political capital he has lost since the election.

The latest poll numbers from CROP tell exactly the extent of Harper's trouble. While the Bloc Quebecois is off four points from election day at 34%, the Liberals have surged seven points to 31%, while the Conservatives have plummeted six points to 16% and the NDP has grown three points to 15%.

Harper's approval numbers are even less competitive. While 37% of Quebecers see Michael Ignatieff as the best prime minister, and 23% see Jack Layton as such, only 16% see Harper that way, and he is a sitting prime minister, fresh from winning an election just four months ago.

This has little to do with Harper's management scores in the economic crisis, though the satisfaction rate with his government has also plunged from the mid-50s to the mid-30s. It has more to do with the tipping point of "the separatist coalition," which worked for Harper in English Canada but had disastrous results in Quebec. Conservative support was already shaky there after the election campaign, when cultural cuts and youth crime proposals transformed the contest into a question of identity in which Harper and the Conservatives were portrayed as aliens from another planet.

At 16%, the Conservatives would be lucky to elect three Quebec members, as opposed to the 10 Quebec ridings they hold today, most in the 418 area in and around Quebec City.

Forgotten but not gone is Harper's main tendue -- his outstretched hand to Quebec, the promise of open federalism, which he delivered on in his first term by resolving the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. Also forgotten is the beau geste he made in the November, 2006, parliamentary resolution to recognize Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. Harper has also made all his opening statements in French first, even at the White House in 2007, despite being told that CNN might cut away.

The same Prime Minister who used to receive spontaneous applause for referring to the Quebecois nation must now climb out of the hole he dug himself with his denunciations of the separatist coalition and the perception that he is solely to blame for the parliamentary crisis that nearly toppled his new government.

How does he go about this? First, by being a lot more present here in Quebec, by being seen as delivering for the province. And second, by patching things up with Premier Jean Charest so he can be seen as working with Quebec in the common interest.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that Montreal-based CAE Inc. had won a $250-million bid for a high-tech pilot training project using their simulator technology. The project could be worth as much as $500-million.

This works for Harper in a lot of ways. It answers those who have asked what Ottawa -- so quick to try to bail out Ontario's auto industry -- is doing for Quebec's aerospace industry. It shows that the Tories are delivering while the Bloc just complains. This will help make the Conservatives competitive again in the 50 ridings outside Montreal where the Liberals have overtaken them as the main federalist party. The Conservatives must regain this footing in ROQ, the Rest of Quebec. A handful of announcements like yesterday's won't hurt.

As for Harper's relationship with Charest, it is a delicate work in progress. Both are to blame for the falling out they had after their relationship began so well three years ago.

But the blame game isn't going to get either one of them any further ahead. This is a time for grown-ups, and they should both behave accordingly.

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