Game holds high stakes for country

Élections 2006

If you want an insider look at what the Martin team actually thinks about its chances on Jan. 23, watch what they do in the next few days.
If they play their Quebec card, that means their most trusted polling has told them the tables are turning against them, and that their forming even a minority government is unlikely.
If they don't play it, that means they are fairly certain of a minority government or even better. So what is their Quebec card?
It's this. A little observed fact in this election campaign -- outside of Quebec, that is -- is the probability based on the polls the Liberal party will be a seriously damaged in that province, perhaps losing every French-speaking constituency to the Bloc.
This might be due to a separatist revival that has become evident in Quebec since the Parti Quebecois' new young leader -- gay and a former crackhead -- has bolstered the party with a new youth movement.
Or it might be due to the disgust of honest Quebec federalists with the sponsorship scandal in which money, intended to bolster federal support in Quebec, was diverted instead into the pockets of senior party cronies and the party's own coffers.
More probably, it's due to both.
In addition, the faltering provincial Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest -- the man who was once seen as the white hope of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada -- is so low in the polls that it seems certain to fall to the PQ in the next election, probably within the next two years.
It therefore becomes altogether probable that during the term of the next federal government, a new separatist administration will take office in Quebec, and its leader has already promised he will call a referendum immediately.
So who will represent the federal cause in the referendum campaign? The prime minister of Canada, of course.
And if that prime minister is Paul Martin, at least a Montrealer will be appealing to the Quebecois.
If it's Stephen Harper, it will be a Calgarian.
This fact will carry great weight in Ontario -- far more than in Quebec -- because, as has been pointed out here before, if Canada were to break up, the great loser would be Ontario.
To the economy of the West in general, and Alberta in particular, the loss of Quebec would make little difference.
So the more the separatist strength grows in Quebec, the more dangerous the situation becomes for Ontario.
To play the "Quebec card," therefore, all Martin needs is to emphasize this fact to Ontario audiences. A vote for the Conservatives, he can contend, is in effect a vote for the separatists.
When the referendum comes, Harper is the man the separatists will want to see as prime minister.
However, for the Liberals, there is a serious downside to playing the Quebec card.
Martin would be signaling to his Quebec party, for instance, that he expects to lose badly there in the current election. He would also be telling the provincial Liberal government he is preparing for its imminent defeat, while telling the PQ he expects their imminent victory.
In short, he would be virtually writing off the Liberal party in Quebec as a means of salvaging its fortunes in Ontario. Which means that he will not play the Quebec card unless he's satisfied it's the only way he can salvage the election. Things will have to be that bad before he does it.
But if he decides to do it, he must act soon, because it will take time to get that message across in Ontario, and he has only two weeks left to do it in.
So far he has given only one clue.
His "I-am-a-loyal-Canadian" pitch was made to an English-speaking, largely Ontario, audience.
He has made no mention of his unfailing loyalty to Canada before his Quebec audiences.
Why? Does he fear a rise of separatism in Ontario? Certainly not.
He simply wants to establish himself in Ontario as their champion against Quebec separatism.
If he plays the Quebec card, he will probably add another twist, by the way.
He will portray Harper as an Albertan.
What do they care if Quebec leaves, he will say. They're sitting pretty anyway.
That should be worth a few more Ontario votes.

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