A stupid guest list

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National Post, Friday, May 22, 2009

In imperial Russia, they built the Potemkin village, the false front, so the czar could pass through without having to see how poorly his people were doing.

The Conservatives put up such a front for Stephen Harper in Montreal on Wednesday night, turning out 2,000 supporters and netting $250,000 in a show of strength at a packed Queen Elizabeth hotel, the biggest ballroom in town.

It was a triumph of organization mounted by Leo Housakos, a newly appointed senator and party fundraiser for the Conservatives. He's also been the bagman for Mario Dumont and the Alliance democratique du Quebec. Indeed, Dumont was on the guest list for the VIP cocktail reception with the Prime Minister, as were the ADQ's former director-general and Myriam Taschereau, who left the PM's office last week to run for the ADQ leadership. The function looked like an ADQ meeting.

No one from the entourage of Premier Jean Charest, or the Quebec Liberal Party, was on the VIP guest list. How stupid was that? Pretty stupid, since the ADQ can't deliver anything to Harper, and Charest controls the only federalist ground game in Quebec, a wondrous thing called the Big Red Machine. The Quebec guys around Harper continue to get it wrong. Either they don't get it, or they don't care. Or they're just plain stupid.

Anyway, the Conservatives aren't going anywhere in the Montreal region, either in the 514 area on the island or the 450 suburban ring around the city. Harper's Quebec tour this summer should be focused in the 418 around Quebec City, where the Conservatives have eight of their 10 Quebec seats in the House. All of the government's announcements should be made in the Quebec City region.

A Cabinet minister from another province recently asked how much trouble the Conservatives were in across Quebec, and what could be done about it. The answer is, plenty, because the voters have become turned off of Harper, with his "separatist coalition" rhetoric from the parliamentary crisis being a tipping point.

What can be done?

"That's easy," he was told. "Dig a moat around 418, build a drawbridge and a castle wall. Defend 418 at all costs."

In other words, protect the base, and think about growing again later.

"With the crowd here tonight," Harper declared, "journalists can no longer say that I'm writing off Quebec."

No one should accuse Harper of that. He has invested a lot of sweat equity and a lot of his hopes here. But the breakthrough of 10 seats in 2006 became a defensive status quo in 2008 only because Harper's war room blew a majority with a series of stunning tactical errors that allowed the Bloc Quebecois to re-claim its standing as the defender of Quebec's interests in Ottawa, no matter what Harper was delivering.

Consider these questions:

How many Canadian prime ministers have delivered their opening statements at the White House entirely in French first? Answer, just one. Not Trudeau. Not Mulroney. Not Chretien. Only Harper, the man from Calgary. Even on election night, in his own city, complete with the disappointment of the blown majority, Harper stuck to his trademark gesture of beginning in French.

Then, which Canadian prime minister proposed a motion to recognize the Quebecois nation in a united Canada? Answer: same as above--Harper.

But all that good work has been squandered by the campaign gaffes, the separatist coalition rhetoric and the treating of Brian Mulroney as an outcast in his own party, in the province where he is a favourite son. What you hear about Harper nowadays in Quebec is not that he's tough -- everyone likes a prime minster to be tough as well as smart -- but that he's mesquin, mean. This isn't the Harper I've occasionally met, but it's one I'm overhearing conversations about.

He isn't going to build back, either, by portraying Michael Ignatieff as the ghost of the centralizing Pierre Trudeau, as he did on Wednesday night in Montreal.

The bogeyman doesn't live here anymore.

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