Federal Tories would be smart to plan for PQ victory

Charest has made gains, but wise bets would be on Boisclair to form government

Référendum III

The first of today's two quotations is attributed to American writer Damon Runyon.
"The race is not (always) to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," Runyon quoted from the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. Then he added: "But that's the way to bet."
So, with the Parti Quebecois having led the Liberals in the polls for more than two years, and still leading in spite of Andre Boisclair, the way to bet the next Quebec election at this point seems clear.
That's why it should have come as no surprise when it was reported this week that senior federal civil servants have advised the Harper government to prepare to deal with a PQ government after the election expected next year.
The advice was contained in a briefing book prepared in February for the new Conservative minister of intergovernmental affairs, Michael Chong, and obtained by La Presse.
Referring to the record levels of dissatisfaction with the Charest government for the previous two years, the Privy Council officials said the Quebec Liberals had little chance of winning a second term.
The PQ would have easily won an election held at that point. And referring to the party's program, they said a PQ government would have a mandate to hold a third sovereignty referendum in its first term.
Conservative strategists are saying privately that the Quebec Liberals are facing an uphill fight for re-election, La Presse said. But they were counting on Charest's talents as a campaigner, and noted the PQ had lost 10 points in the polls since choosing Boisclair as its leader last November.
The Boisclair slide might have ended, however. Results of a CROP-La Presse survey conducted Aug. 17-28 suggest the PQ's support has stabilized.
CROP projected it at 37 per cent, a point higher than last April, and five points ahead of where the Liberals appear to have been stalled since June. Because the Liberals pile up large majorities of "wasted" votes in a relatively small number of Montreal-area ridings, it's estimated t they need to beat the PQ by at least five points in the popular vote to win an election. In effect, CROP said the Liberals were stuck 10 points shy of victory.
The CROP results did contain one piece of encouraging news for federalists: The Charest government's satisfaction rating, the key political indicator between election campaigns, had improved by eight points since June to 40 per cent, the highest level in nearly three years.
But it's not unusual for an unpopular government to improve its score in the polls temporarily over the summer, when the voters see less of the government to annoy them. It remains to be seen whether the government's satisfaction rating will continue to improve and pull up Liberal support behind it.
Charest might be handicapped by the Conservatives themselves, and his close association with them. CROP reported that since June, the Harper government's satisfaction rating in Quebec has fallen by 14 points and Conservative support by nine points.
In terms of guilt by association, the Quebec Liberals appear to have exchanged the federal Liberals and the sponsorship scandal for Stephen Harper, the one-man cold front from western Canada, and Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kyoto and George W. Bush.
And the Conservatives might be overestimating Charest's advantage as a campaigner for the next election.
As a leader, Charest has never had to defend his government's record. He's also personally unpopular, and the voters will be seeing him on television every night during the campaign.
The Conservative minister with political responsibility for Quebec, Lawrence Cannon, tried to spin the briefing book as out-of-date.
But if a public show of confidence in Charest's re-election is the Conservatives' Plan A, they should also be privately preparing a Plan B that includes dusting off the Clarity Act, which sets conditions for Ottawa's response to another referendum on sovereignty.
Here's where today's second quotation comes in. It's attributed to Emile de Mazarin, a 19th- century French publisher: "To govern is to foresee."

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