How Harper lost Quebec

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National Post, Friday, May 29, 2009

Whether the Conservatives are mired in fourth place at 13% in Quebec one day, according to a Leger poll, or merely treading water in third place at 15%, according to a CROP poll two days later, they are going nowhere fast.

In the Leger poll, Michael Ignatieff still has the wind at his back. In the CROP poll, his momentum has stalled, perhaps because of Frenchlanguage Conservative attack ads reminding Quebecers that his views on Quebec have, to put it mildly, evolved over time. The Liberals lead the Bloc by 37% to 33% in the Leger poll; the Bloc has regained the lead, at 36% to 32% in the CROP poll.

But none of these developments are the big story coming out of this week's polls. Whether the Libs or Bloc are leading is, within the margin of error, just six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.

No, the big story is the collapse of the Conservative vote since last Sept. 19, the end of the second week of the election campaign, when the Tories were in first place at 34% in a Leger poll, with the Bloc at 32% and the Liberals at 20%. Had those numbers held until election day on Oct. 14, the Conservatives would have won at least 30 seats in Quebec and coasted to an easy majority. But the Conservatives won only 10 seats in Quebec, and fell 12 seats short of a majority. The province that was supposed to deliver Harper's majority ended up depriving him of one.

None of the bad things that have happened to Harper and the Conservatives since then -- certainly not the parliamentary crisis that nearly toppled the minority government in December -- would have occurred if Harper had gained a majority in the election. With no parliamentary crisis, Harper would never have resorted to the "separatist coalition" rhetoric, which he used successfully to fend off the Three Stooges in English-speaking Canada but which proved to be a huge tipping point in Quebec.

With no parliamentary crisis, the Liberals would have been stuck with Stephane Dion as a lame duck leader for another five months, while the candidates to replace him cut each other up in a divisive leadership campaign that would have cost the party millions it didn't have. Instead, the Liberals dumped Dion, installed Ignatieff and united behind their new leader, ending decades of leadership struggles that rivaled the War of the Roses.

Indeed, what happened during the campaign set up what happened after the election was over. It was a perfect storm of trouble that blew up out of unrelated small things -- the cultural cuts, the young offender proposals, the mobile billboard insulting Quebecers by telling them they had wasted their taxpayer money voting for the Bloc. Gilles Duceppe flipped an election that had been about him and the Bloc having had its day, to one about Harper and the Conservatives not sharing Quebecois values. And that was not a conversation Harper had any chance of winning, not even after all the good will he had demonstrated by continuously offering la main tendue, an outstretched hand, to Quebec.

The "separatist coalition" rhetoric was particularly damaging to Harper in Quebec because voters took it home for the holidays and discussed it en famille, where a lot of political decisions are made in Quebec. When they came back in January, they had decided they didn't like him very much any more. And his office's suggestion that Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of the Conservative party didn't win Harper any popularity contests in Quebec either.

Whether his popularity in Quebec stands at 13% or 15%, Harper is a long way from the 34% he had in late-September, 2008, when he was standing on the doorstep of a majority in what should have been a realignment election.

The people who were advising Harper on Quebec then are the same ones advising him now. How are they doing so far? The Prime Minister can draw his own conclusions.

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