Gilles Duceppe's tricky high-wire act

2006 textes seuls

The Bloc Québécois leader wants help for Quebec, but not another federal election anytime soon So, he has to tread carefully to keep the new minority government afloat, says Graham Fraser

OTTAWA-You could almost hear Gilles Duceppe's sigh of relief after the Harper government's Speech from the Throne.
The speech contained enough for the Bloc Québécois to criticize, but it also had enough for Quebec so that Duceppe won't feel compelled to defeat the government soon.
The Bloc leader never talks publicly about strategy. When he was asked recently what the party was doing about the fact that it lost so many seats in the Quebec City area, in ridings that are 95 per cent French-speaking, he quipped that if the party had a plan, he wasn't going to say what it was.
It's probably just as well that he has made it a practice to keep his cards close to his chest because there is no evidence that the Bloc has figured out how to stop Prime Minister Stephen Harper from building on his new Quebec base of 10 seats - nine in Quebec City and the area on the south side of the St. Lawrence. For the time being, Duceppe talks about holding Harper to his commitments and insisting that he deliver the goods.
Until the House of Commons returned this week, it looked as if Duceppe would have to walk a tightrope between keeping the government's feet to the fire and avoiding an election. The last thing the Bloc wants is a federal election before the next Quebec provincial election.
But Harper's carefully worded throne speech in which the government promised to "respond to concerns about the fiscal imbalance" and to recognize "the unique place of a strong and vibrant Quebec in a united Canada" made that tightrope much easier for Duceppe to manage.
For in the short term, the two party leaders need each other.
"In the Speech from the Throne, we have to show the elements that allow us to vote for it - the recognition of the fiscal imbalance, Quebec's role in the world - even the promise to increase the number of daycare spaces," Bloc MP Pierre Paquette says, adding that the Bloc considered these gains it had achieved. "If Harper's desire to keep power is there and to make the necessary compromises, I think on the Bloc's side there will be constructive collaboration."
Veteran Bloc MP Louis Plamondon says the party is in a very different position than in the last Parliament: It has the balance of power, "The Speech from the Throne is one thing - it is a statement of intentions," Plamondon says. "But the budget is different. If we vote for it, the government survives; if we vote against, the government falls."
As a result, he says, the Bloc has to make its expectations very clear so that there is no misunderstanding. There will have to be some things that the government does, and includes in the budget, that the Bloc can support, and there can't be things that are impossible for the Bloc to support.
Duceppe has already made clear what the no-go zones are: If Harper tries to send Canadian troops to Iraq, or involve Canada in the U.S. missile defence system, or cancel the Kyoto Protocol, the Bloc will vote against, even if it means bringing down the government. For the Bloc, those issues are worth fighting an election over, anytime.
The throne speech, with its nods to Quebec and the absence of anything that the Bloc cannot support, showed that Harper has taken the hint.
Duceppe has one major advantage in keeping his balance in this Parliament: He has a very solid relationship with Harper, and the two men trust each other. But Duceppe knows that Harper wants to win his majority in Quebec, at his expense.
`I think on the Bloc's side there will be constructive collaboration'
_ Bloc MP Pierre Paquette

"(Duceppe's) challenge is one of time," says former Bloc MP Richard Marceau. "He is facing a government which has said that it wants to deliver the goods; he doesn't want to undermine that. He has to find a role as a critic who is seeking things for Quebec, without bringing down the government."
As Marceau points out, this is only one of the balancing acts Duceppe will have to perform.
For the Bloc is not only worried about the loss of seats it suffered on Jan.23; it is concerned about the prospects for the sovereignty movement.
"We have to be aware that Canadians - including Quebecers - don't want an election," Plamondon says. "They are curious about Harper, and we have to give him a chance."
He acknowledged that an election in the next 12 months is not in the interests of either the Bloc or the Parti Québécois.
Only three months ago, Duceppe was coyly acknowledging that he hoped that the Bloc would break the historic barrier of 50 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec. But on election day, the sovereignist party ended up with only 42 per cent - down from 48.9 per cent - and 1,552,043 votes, a loss of 128,066 votes from the 2004 election.
If the hemorrhage were to continue and Harper were to pick up more votes and seats in small-town Quebec, the effect on the sovereignty movement could be devastating in the short term.
Not only will Duceppe have to challenge the Harper government without bringing it down, he will have to figure out how to best assist the PQ and its new leader, André Boisclair.
"They have to work out how to find a balance - and how to contribute to the Parti Québécois without overshadowing it," Marceau says. "Duceppe has been a leader for nine years, he is very experienced. How does he best collaborate, while leaving the primary place to Boisclair?"

Marceau, who was widely recognized as one of the rising stars in the Bloc, lost his seat in the Conservative wave that rolled across the Quebec City region. Now, he is reflecting on whether to run in the next Quebec election as a PQ candidate.
The Bloc has identified a number of local issues on which the Conservatives could be embarrassed. During the election campaign, Harper named several local and regional issues where he suggested that the Conservatives would move, such as the expansion of Quebec City's airport. Local candidates went further, saying that the Conservatives would help keep the deficit-ridden Quebec Zoo open.
Now, the zoo is being closed, and Josée Verner, the senior minister from the Quebec City region, says awkwardly that this is a provincial responsibility and a provincial decision.
For the Bloc, it is a perfect occasion to taunt the Conservatives, what Marceau calls a test case - emotional enough in the Quebec City region to embarrass the government, but too local to bring it down.
Despite the election setback, the Bloc is optimistic. The party calculates that all of the votes the Liberals lost went to the Conservatives, while only half of its own lost votes went to Harper's candidates, with the other half staying home.
"With a new Liberal leader, not associated with the scandals, who is the slightest bit charismatic, the Liberal vote will come back," Plamondon says. "Then, we're back into three-way races."
And with three-way races, the Bloc thinks it can win back some of those lost seats and keep Harper from winning his majority in small-town Quebec, where he sees his greatest potential.

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