Gilles Duceppe – the day he blew it

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Sun Media, Friday, April 29, 2011

When the history of this campaign is written, the defining moment will be a speech Gilles Duceppe gave to a Parti Quebecois policy convention on April 17, the Sunday following the leaders’ debates.

In a desperate bid to rally his separatist base, the Bloc leader made a separatist speech.

“We have only one task to accomplish,” he said. “Elect the maximum number of sovereignists in Ottawa and then we go to the next phase — electing a PQ government. A strong Bloc in Ottawa. The PQ in power in Quebec. And everything again becomes possible.”

The blowback in the rest of Canada was predictable. In Quebec, not so much.

It turns out Quebecers heard him all right, but not as he intended. His argument was: Elect Bloc members in Ottawa so we can elect a separatist government in Quebec, and hold another referendum to break up the country.

As Jean Charest likes to say: “Quebecers don’t want another referendum, which isn’t to say they won’t show up for one.”

How much they don’t want another referendum is evident in the NDP surge in Quebec. In the Nanos daily tracking poll, the NDP had grown into the low 20s in Quebec, on the strength of Jack Layton’s strong performance in the leaders’ debates on April 12 and 13.

But since Duceppe’s speech at the PQ convention, the NDP has surged to an amazing 42% in Quebec in Thursday’s Nanos poll, and 30% across the country. And this from a party whose best performance ever in Quebec was 12% in the 2008 election.

Never mind that the NDP doesn’t have a ground game in Quebec. A rising tide lifts all the boats. If these numbers hold through Monday, Quebec will be responsible for putting Layton in Stornoway, and make him the senior partner in any opposition coalition. Who knew?

Well, Duceppe should have known. While he may have been exhorting the separatist troops in the hall, the echo effect among voters was resounding. They knew what he meant when he said: “And everything again becomes possible.”

The “R” word. The one word Quebecers don’t want to hear.

It used to be the job of the other parties to strategically block the Bloc. This time, Quebecers spontaneously decided to do it themselves, by turning in droves to Jack Layton, “un bon jack,” a good guy who speaks imperfect but colloquial French, who impressed them in the debates, and who shares many of their views on the left.

And he has created the narrative of a gallant campaigner — a man with a cane. And like another man with a cane, Lucien Bouchard, he is walking on water.

The ballot question remains unchanged, majority or minority. But for Stephen Harper to close the deal, he needs to raise his game. The Conservative campaign has been well organized and smooth. But it has lacked a sense of passion about Canada and urgency about the need for a stable government.

Layton’s rise, as the would-be leader of a socialist coalition, may have handed Harper a winning argument in Ontario, where the NDP brand has been discredited ever since Bob Rae left the province insolvent. Not this Rae, Liberal Bob, but that Rae, Premier Bob. Mr. Rae Days himself.

Ontarians haven’t forgotten. They’ve even told their children.

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