Contrary to the knee-jerk reaction of some francophone pundits who mistakenly thought that the champion of the Clarity Act was despised in Quebec, it turns out the new federal Liberal Leader is rather well seen in his native province, at least for now.
All of the polls taken since Stéphane Dion was elected to head the Liberal Party show that a majority of Quebeckers have approved of the choice of the Liberal delegates and that this result has greatly improved the party's standing in the province. The latest poll, by Decima Research, shows that the Liberals have more than doubled their support in Quebec, to 27 per cent, at the expense of the Conservatives, who are now down to 12 per cent. The Bloc Québécois, though, is still by far the strongest federal party in the province, with 45-per-cent support.
The next election will be a fight between the two main federalist parties, which, in principle, will be good for the Bloc. Still, the centre-left and pro-environment platform of the Dion Liberals might attract a substantial proportion of Bloc supporters - those who are left-leaning, especially interested in the environment, and not really committed to sovereignty. If Mr. Dion plays his cards well, he will also bring back those disgruntled Liberal voters who didn't bother to exercise their franchise during the past two elections. Theoretically, the Liberals should be able to regain the six ridings they lost to the Bloc since 2004 in the metropolitan area.
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't stop promoting right-wing policies and doesn't come up with some imaginative ideas to win over middle-class urban voters, he risks losing the fragile gains he made in the last election. This is why former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who knows Quebec inside out, gave pointed advice to his friends in the Conservative Party last week: The environment, he said, will be the crucial issue in the next election.
This said, the federal Liberal Party is in disarray in Quebec. It virtually disappeared from rural regions and clings to just one riding outside Montreal. All its safe seats are in areas heavily populated by non-francophones. Nearly all of the top Liberal players - people such as former cabinet ministers Martin Cauchon, Denis Coderre, Francis Fox and Liza Frulla and seasoned party organizer Pablo Rodriguez - supported Michael Ignatieff. Even if most of them seem willing to rally behind Mr. Dion, there is still some bad blood between the two camps. The lone Quebec MP who backed Mr. Dion was Marlene Jennings, a relatively obscure figure.
Nobody doubts the new leader's intellectual abilities, but Mr. Dion never had the reputation of being a team player, and he might lack the human touch that leaders need to soothe bruised egos, reunite a caucus, and galvanize the troops.
Whether there is no one he can trust or he wants to be personally in charge of Quebec, Mr. Dion probably will give the political responsibility for the province to a committee - an unusual decision.
One of Mr. Dion's challenges will be finding new star candidates. The small Quebec caucus is not exactly full of bright lights, but at least with the departure of Jean Lapierre and the expected exit of Paul Martin, Mr. Dion should be able to offer two safe ridings - Outremont and LaSalle-Émard - to high-profile recruits. One problem, though, is that both Ms. Frulla and Marc Garneau, who were defeated in 2005, now want to run in LaSalle-Émard, Mr. Martin's ultra-safe seat.
There are rumours that Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of Pierre Trudeau, is considering running in Outremont. But even though he's the darling of the Toronto media, he is not star material in Quebec. He is seen as a "media personality" who hasn't done much with his life apart from playing host to galas and uttering platitudes.