The Quebec bust-up -- take two

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National Post, Friday, October 16, 2009

Robert Bourassa often said that a week is a long time in politics, and a year is an eternity.

Those are words for Stephen Harper to consider this week, on the one-year anniversary of his missed rendezvous with a majority, largely because of his misbegotten campaign in Quebec.

Or as a habitué of the Conservative war room put it afterwards: "How did you like our brilliant plan to lock up 14-year-old artists for life?"

When the Conservative cultural cuts and youth crime crackdown proposals were bundled together as a Quebecois-values issue by Gilles Duceppe, the Conservative numbers plummeted, and their seat projections dropped from a minimum of 25 to the maximum of the 10 they won here last October. With the Tories winning 143 seats, 12 short of majority territory, Quebec was the decisive difference.

Then Harper's ratings sank again after last December's self-inflicted parliamentary crisis, when he styled the opposition as "the separatist coalition," which blew him up in Quebec, especially in holiday conversations around the dining room tables of Quebec families.

Stated another way: For $15-million of cultural cuts, Harper lost a majority; for another $28-million of would-be cuts in public funding to political parties, he nearly lost the government.

Things continued to go south for the Tories in Quebec in April, when Harper's office put it out that Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of the party he had twice carried to crushing majority because of blowout numbers in Quebec.

Mulroney is a favourite son in Quebec, remembered as the architect of free trade and the artisan of Meech Lake, whose tragic failure has enhanced its iconic stature as a valiant effort. Moreover, apart from the strains on party unity, Harper looked mesquin -- mean-spirited. Conservative voting intention bottomed out just above double digits, which might have resulted in the election of Max Bernier and a player to be named later.

But since the summer, with a little help from friends such as Michael Ignatieff, Harper and the Conservatives have gradually regained competitive footing in Quebec.

It started with the Conservatives front-ending loading their infrastructure announcements in the 418 area of Quebec City and ridings to the east, where they hold eight of their 10 Quebec seats. Then Harper continued to patch things up with Premier Jean Charest, who owns the keys to a very snazzy car known as the Big Red Machine.

Moreover, Michael Ignatieff's summer tour, if that's what it was, had no more visibility or impact in Quebec than anywhere else in the country. Finally, Ignatieff's declaration that Harper's "time is up," followed by the toxic Ontario-Quebec/English-French fallout from the Martin Cauchon-Denis Coderre turf war, sent the Liberals into a free fall.

From first place in the polls when he assumed the Liberal leadership in May -- at a time when he actually enjoyed a five-point lead on the Bloc, with the Tories off the radar -- Ignatieff and the Liberals have again fallen to third place. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have returned to their election day level of 22%, enough to retain what they've got.

The Liberals are nowhere outside the Montreal region, in the 50-seat battleground that determines the fortunes of both the Bloc and the Conservatives.

And at a time when Ignatieff could use a break in terms of the November 9 by-elections, he won't be getting one in the two contests in Quebec. Hochelaga, in east-end Montreal, is a lock for the Bloc, with the Liberals figuring to be a distant second, 30 points behind, and perhaps even third if the NDP can round up enough support in a riding with a go-go gauche profile.

And downriver in Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Riviere-du-Loup, the Bloc should be favoured to defend a seat they won by 15 points over the Conservatives a year ago. But the Bloc is locked in a tight race with Bernard Genereux, a former mayor of La Pocatiere with close links to the Charest Liberals. A Conservative win would be a game changer, and a sign of creeping Bloc fatigue.

Truly, a week is a long time, and a year an eternity.

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