Bad time for a promotion

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National Post, Friday, October 9, 2009

At first, in the wake of Denis Coderre's resignation, Michael Ignatieff said he was thinking of abolishing the post of Quebec lieutenant in the Liberal Party of Canada. Then he said he would name a replacement, after all.

And on Wednesday, he did, sort of, by naming Marc Garneau as his, uh, representative to the board of directors of the party's Quebec wing. And then in the next breath Iggy referred to Garneau as his Quebec lieutenant.

So, if we understand it correctly, Garneau will represent the leader's views to the party in Quebec, but he won't be the political boss. Or will he?

He certainly won't be the chief organizer, and that's a good thing, because far too much authority was vested in Coderre in both roles, and he was none too shy about throwing his weight around. He had a gift for organizing, but also for annoying MPs and rank and file alike.

Garneau will bring a healing disposition to the role of leader's representative, lieutenant, whatever. There isn't a nicer, or more considerate, man anywhere.

The former astronaut had a rough entry into political orbit in 2005, when he was recruited as a star candidate by Paul Martin in the suburban Montreal riding of Vaudreuil-Solanges. He discovered that his fame was no heat shield against aggressive media who goaded him into comments about the possibility of civil war, and his leaving the province in the event of Quebec independence. He has since learned not to answer hypotheticals.

In the 2008 election, he was given a safer course to Ottawa as the candidate in Westmount-Ville Marie, one of the surest Liberal seats in creation.

But for all that, the sum of his political experience is exactly one year in Parliament. And he becomes the leader's spokesman, representative, lieutenant, whatever, at an extremely bad moment in the life of the Liberal party.

A quarter century after he became the first Canadian in space, he may find that was a much smoother and less hazardous ride. An Ekos poll yesterday showed the Conservatives breaking out to a 14-point lead over the Liberals nationally. More to the point, in Quebec, the Bloc is at 39%, the Conservatives are at 22% and the Liberals are falling to Earth at 21%. This clearly reflects the Coderre effect, and the blowback in Quebec as elsewhere in the country, from Iggy's disastrous gambit in trying to force an election nobody wants.

Looking ahead to two byelections in Quebec called by Stephen Harper for November 9, the Liberals face a very daunting task.

Both Quebec seats are held by the Bloc, and the Liberals aren't likely to be competitive in either one of them.

In Hochelaga, in East End Montreal, the good news for the Liberals is that they should finish second to the Bloc's Daniel Paille, a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister. The bad news is that the Liberals should lose by about 30 points.

But in the Lower St. Lawrence riding of Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Riviere-du-Loup, the Liberals will settle for finishing a distant third, and will be lucky to beat out the NDP at that.

With the Conservatives becoming the competitive federalist alternative again in area 418 -- Quebec City and east -- this shapes up as strictly a two-way race between the Bloc and the Conservatives. In the general election, the Bloc won the seat by 15 points, 45% to 30% over the Tories, so it's within reach for the Conservatives.

They have a strong local candidate in Bernard Genereux. He has strong connections to the provincial Liberal party, and Jean Charest is certain to put the Big Red Machine behind him as the candidate of the only federalist party with a shot at the Bloc.

The rest is massaging and the Conservative message to the voters is that they have a choice of being in opposition, or in government. Or as they say in Quebec: du bon bord.

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