A rough year ahead for Harper

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

2006 was an exciting year. At least, if you’re the kind of person to get excited by Quebec politics. And 2007 promises lots of thrills. Just not in a good way.
In 2006 the Conservatives got elected nationally with 10 seats from Quebec. This was followed by a long and ridiculous “nation” debate, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Quebec for Saint-Jean-Baptiste, dismissing it as mere semantics only to shove recognition of the spectacularly ill-defined Québécois nation down everybody’s throats a few months later. Uh, OK.
I have already predicted the nation motion would come back to haunt Mr. Harper and I’m sticking to it. Certainly it hasn’t helped his party in Quebec, where recent polls show support down almost 10 percentage points from 25 per cent in last January’s election. I know at least one annoying loudmouth who has repeatedly used this particular newspaper space to warn the Tories – and anybody who’ll listen – against cozying up to nationalist Quebecers because it never brings anything except trouble. But as usual Mr. Harper thought he knew better.
Meanwhile the prime minister managed to alienate Quebecers (which admittedly didn’t require much effort) with his staunch support of Israel in its conflict against Hezbollah, also with the Afghan mission, his coldness vis-à-vis global warming, his reluctance to embrace popular causes like the Montreal Outgames and the Toronto AIDS conference, his now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t stance on gay marriage and his refusal, so far, to send truckloads of unconditional money to the Quebec government just because. Things aren’t going too well on that side of the Ottawa River.
I’m not saying Quebecers are right to dislike Mr. Harper. Certainly I’m with him when it comes to supporting Israel against fanatical murderers. I also like his skepticism on whether implementing Kyoto would be such a dandy idea, and his refusal to attend fashionable gabfests in the hope that media natterers might perhaps shut up. But none of that matters; at best Quebecers are playing hard to get and at worst they regret having supported the Conservatives last time round. Either way it’s bad news for Mr. Harper.
What can the Conservatives do to increase their support in Quebec and win more seats there to increase their chances of winning a majority nationally next time? Other than pray for a miracle, I mean?
Personally, I wouldn’t start from where they are. It’s unfortunately too late to undo the nation motion, it would be most immoral suddenly to start calling Israel names (plus it doesn’t always work, as Michael Ignatieff demonstrated), and totally unwise to follow Kyoto targets blindly.
Mr. Harper can’t even count on any provincial allies. Premier Jean Charest will be in campaign mode pretty soon and his own prospects are awful. The only thing that might save his career is Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair being even worse than he’s been this past year, which is unlikely though not technically impossible.
Even if Mr. Charest somehow manages to not lose his re-election bid, his tattered coat-tails offer no ride. And what if the PQ wins? Ah, then methinks committed federalist Quebecers, especially those in the Montreal region, will hold their noses and vote for the unpopular Stéphane Dion – Mr. Clarity Act – and his Liberals not the Tories.
Should Mr. Harper follow in the footsteps of Brian Mulroney by further cozying up to the nationalists, or start another round of constitutional talks, or send billions of your dollars to Quebec City – or, egad, all of the above? Depends how much he wants a repeat of the 1993 election.
Apparently he can’t resist. I expect Mr. Harper’s government to deliver a budget soonish that will aim to “solve” the “fiscal imbalance” by sending who knows how much money to some provincial governments (which won’t be enough to satisfy Quebec but will be enough to annoy Alberta and Ontario). Canada’s New Government is also itching to mess with the Constitution to bring in half-baked Senate reforms and limits to the federal spending power.
As for further cozying up to nationalists, it’s hard to top what Mr. Harper told supporters in the Saguenay region last month. “When you are part of a nation, it is perfectly normal to be nationalist,” he said. He also implied that it was wrong to believe that “the Quebec nation and Canadian unity do not go together.” Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe ought to complain; after stealing his nation-motion thunder, the prime minister is stealing some of his lines.
Do I really need to explain – again – why Mr. Harper is on the wrong track? I didn’t think so. Yep, 2007 is liable to be eventful. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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