MONTREAL - The apparent Conservative surge in Quebec, to between 17% and 20% in all the polls, has reached the point where les bleus are poised to win several seats in this province on Jan. 23.
It’s also reached the point where the echo effect is being heard in Ontario, and resonating back to Quebec.
Ontarians like to vote for a national party with prospects of forming a government with some support in Quebec. Quebecers, sensing Ontario is on the move, like to vote for a winner. And, going into this week’s debates at least, Stephen Harper was looking increasingly like a winner.
Of course, that has also made him a more popular target for the other leaders.
Gilles Duceppe, for one, had been aiming all his heavy artillery at Paul Martin on accountability issues — from the sponsorship scandal to the income trust probe and, now, the $4.8-million directed to Option Canada during the 1995 referendum, money that was never reported as expenses by the No Committee as required by Quebec law.
But having pounded Martin and the Liberals on ethics, Duceppe may well turn his fire on Harper tonight.
Harper’s growth has come partly at the expense of the Liberals, but largely at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois. While this may not change much in terms of seat distribution, it has for the moment at least pulled Duceppe below his goal of 50% of the popular vote, a level never achieved by the sovereignists in any referendum or election.
It’s Duceppe himself who set the bar at 50% early in the campaign, and failure to achieve it would be a blow to his leadership. It would also deprive the sovereignty movement of an important winning condition as well as quite a bit of cash. Under the campaign-finance reforms put in place by Jean Chretien’s government, federal parties receive $1.75 per vote per year, money they can spend however they want. That includes the pursuit of sovereignty.
So Duceppe can be expected to remind Quebecers tonight that Harper is not aligned with their progressive views on social issues such as same-sex marriage or the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
But Quebecers knew that before some of them started moving toward Harper after his Quebec City speech in December. Coming as it did, a few days before Christmas, Harper gave Quebecers food for thought around the family table over the holidays.
Clearly, he was reaching out to frustrated federalists and soft nationalists, who were disenchanted with the Liberals and parked with the Bloc.
First of all, there was the tone of Harper’s speech. The boy from Toronto, who became the man from Calgary, said in French that "Quebec is the heart of Canada." It was an elegant gesture, and did not pass unnoticed.
On the specifics of the speech, Harper said Quebec could be represented at international forums such as UNESCO in areas within its constitutional competence, such as culture and education — as it is in la Francophonie under the 1985 formula negotiated by Brian Mulroney and Pierre Marc Johnson. Harper also acknowledged the existence of the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, a discussion that may be sleep-inducing in other provinces but is a hot topic in Quebec.
Both Premier Jean Charest and Mario Dumont, leader of the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ), have expressed strong approval of Harper’s Quebec City speech. While Charest is leader of the Quebec Liberals, he’s also a former Conservative leader, who was incensed at Martin’s attempt to transform the vote into a referendum election, which assumed Charest’s defeat in the next provincial election. And Dumont’s ADQ machine is openly supporting the Conservatives in its regional strongholds of Quebec City and Montreal’s South Shore.
All of which leads Harper to tonight and la main tendue, the hand outstretched to Quebec. In 1984, Brian Mulroney essentially won the French debate in his opening statement when he asked Quebecers for their help in creating the "political alternation so indispensable to the life of democracy."
For Harper, tonight offers that kind of opportunity.