In St. Joseph de Beauce in January of last year, there were 700 people at a Conservative campaign rally with Stephen Harper. Six days later, his candidate, Maxime Bernier, would win the riding of Beauce by 26,000 votes.
In the restaurant where the meeting was being held, Claude Charron considered the blue tide that was then rising across Quebec. Charron, star political analyst with the TVA network, was a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister and the most gifted parliamentarian of his generation.
"It will," he said, "be good for Mr. Charest."
A small group of half a dozen people, gathered around him, understood what he was saying, and all nodded their agreement.
In winning the federal election last Jan. 23, Harper profoundly changed the federal-provincial dynamic for the Quebec election that will be called on Wednesday for March 26.
The fundamentals changed. The tone changed. The Ottawa-Quebec relationship changed from paternalism to partnership. And as Charron predicted then, it has all been good for Jean Charest.
First of all, in establishing a significant beachhead by winning 10 seats in Quebec, Harper smashed the polarization that had gripped the electorate in the previous four elections.
Both the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois succeeded in making every campaign between 1993 and 2004 a question of country. Their relationship was symbiotic, a co-dependency. The Liberals held voters hostage as the saviours of federalism. The Bloc offered the luxury of voting for sovereignty without voting for separation. And the Conservatives were marginalized in every election, even in the one in which their leader, Charest, was a favourite son.
Charest almost made a breakthrough in the 1997 campaign, when his voting intention broke over 30 per cent with only two weeks left in the campaign. This would have given him at least 25 seats off the island of Montreal. His momentum was palpable with growing crowds filling halls wherever he went.
But then Jean Chretien played the unity card, saying 50 per cent plus one in referendum was "not enough" for Quebec to achieve sovereignty. Voters flocked to both the Liberals and the Bloc. Charest lost 10 points in the last two weeks, and won only five Quebec seats in the Eastern Townships, including his own.
He never forgave Chretien for that. It was one of the reasons why, when Chretien urged him to accept a draft for the Quebec Liberal leadership in 1998, Charest was reluctant. He simply didn’t trust Chretien’s motives, and suspected with reason that he had a hidden agenda : to wipe the Conservatives off the face of the Quebec electoral map.
In the 2000 election, under Joe Clark, the Conservatives held only one seat in Quebec. In 2004, under Harper, they briefly surged to 15 per cent before Paul Martin brought in Stephane Dion to play the unity card in the last week of the campaign. "A vote for the Bloc is a vote for sovereignty," the voters were told.
Harper’s vote shrank in half, to eight per cent and zero seats. It was 1997 all over again. The Bloc had 49 per cent of the vote and 54 seats, while the Liberals grew five points in the final week to 33 per cent, and saved the furniture with 21 seats.
After the 2004 election, Harper ignored the advice of his entourage to write off Quebec and redoubled his presence here, especially in the 418 area around Quebec City, where Mario Dumont and the conservative ADQ provided him with a natural base.
But in the 2006 campaign, it was Charest who provided the most support on the ground when he put the Big Red Machine behind Harper. And after Harper’s open federalism speech in Quebec City, Charest openly spoke of "my participation" in the federal campaign.
In the last year, Harper has delivered on his promise of a role for Quebec at UNESCO, come through with money for Autoroute 30, approved $350 million of funding for Pratt & Whitney, authorized a major Hydro-Quebec project in northern Quebec, and just last week, promised Quebec even more money than Charest asked for to achieve its emissions-reductions goals . Next, a redress of the fiscal imbalance in the budget.
In the last year, Charest’s polls have stabilized and grown again, to the point where his Liberals now lead the Parti Quebecois by five points, 36-31, in last week’s Leger marketing poll, with Dumont and the ADQ at 21 per cent.
Charest’s turnaround began in the last federal campaign, and has allowed him to enter his own as a sitting premier who defends the interests of Quebec and delivers the merchandise for the voters.
Charron was right. It was good for Charest.