Back in the Quebec game

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National Post, Monday, September 14, 2009

There are two Quebecs represented in the House of Commons, Montreal and the Rest of Quebec (RoQ). The math of Quebec's 75 seats is very simple. There are 25 seats in Montreal, and 50 in RoQ.

The Liberals are currently a Montreal party, with all 14 of their seats in the city and the bedroom community of Laval. The Conservatives are an RoQ party, with eight of their 10 seats in the 418 area around Quebec City. And the Bloc is two mints in one, with nearly a dozen seats in Montreal and Laval, but most of its current 48 seats in RoQ. Oh, and the NDP has one member, Tom Mulcair in Outremont.

If we do have an election this fall, the Liberals hope to increase their Quebec deputation to 25 members, by making gains from the Bloc in both Montreal and RoQ, as well by regaining the historic Liberal redoubt of Outremont.

As for the Conservatives, if you asked them tomorrow if they would take the 10 seats they have, they'd sign on in a heartbeat. They once thought Quebec would be the road to a majority in 2008, but it became the roadblock to one, as Stephen Harper got tangled up in a bunch of Quebecois values traps set by Gilles Duceppe. Harper's rhetoric denouncing "the separatist coalition" during last fall's parliamentary crisis, wasn't a great day at the office for the Conservatives, either. Their poll numbers in Quebec bottomed just above double digits in the spring, right around the time Harper's office put it out that Brian Mulroney, a favourite son of Quebec, was no longer a member of the Conservative party. There was a certain meanness of spirit to that action which further harmed Harper's standing in Quebec.

But recent poll numbers show the Conservatives have clawed their way back into contention in Quebec, or at least to the threshold of support they need to be the competitive federalist

alternative to the Bloc in 418, where seats start to fall very efficiently to the Conservatives once they cross 20% of the vote province-wide. Only two Conservative MPs come from outside 418, Christian Paradis, the Quebec lieutenant from right next door in the Monteregie, and Lawrence Cannon, the foreign affairs minister from Pontiac in the Outaouais region.

At one point last spring the only safe Conservative MPs were Maxime Bernier and a player to be named later. But over the summer, there has been a cautious revival of hope in the Conservative camp, as their poll numbers have gradually edged up to the critical 20% mark.

A recent Nanos poll for La Presse had the Bloc at 37.3%, the Liberals at 32.3% and the Conservatives on the bubble of where they need to be at 19.3%, with the NDP falling back into single digits at 8.9%.

What's happened over the summer to allow the Conservatives back into the game in 418?

They did the smart thing. They built a moat and a drawbridge around it. Very few government announcements have been in Montreal. Why bother? There's no electoral return for such an investment. Most of them have been made in the Quebec City area, including stops on the PM's summer-long infrastructure tour. The Conservatives have poured everything into defending what they have in RoQ.

And then Michael Ignatieff had a very ordinary summer in Quebec, as in the rest of the country. In retrospect, part of his honeymoon last spring was simply the result of his not being Harper, who was then very much out of favour. While it will take more than a blue sweater for Harper to regain the trust of Quebecers, he does now have a consistent message that his government is delivering the goods for them.

Harper has also re-engaged over the summer with Premier Jean Charest, who went out of his way at a joint appearance for a highway announcement to praise Harper for moving infrastructure money out the door in a very efficient manner. Quite apart from the resumption of harmonious relations between the two, Charest happens to control something called the Big Red Machine, the only federalist ground game of any consequence in Quebec.

Something for both Harper and Ignatieff to keep in mind.

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