Liberals have given their enemies a cause to unite them

Mount Orford, it seems, has many friends; the Liberals appear to have none

Mont Orford

Among the supporters of the campaign to save Mount Orford from a condo developer are a Sherbrooke FM rock station, philosophy teachers at the CEGEP de Sherbrooke and a group identifying itself as "friends of the peat bog at St. Joachim de Shefford."
In addition to the friends of peat, well-known entertainers Clemence Desrochers and Richard Seguin are listed as supporters on the web site of SOS Parc Orford, a coalition of local conservationist groups.
And there are some groups that are known primarily for advocating causes other than the environment. These include the Confederation des syndicats nationaux labour organization, the nationalist Societe St. Jean Baptiste de Montreal and the youth council of the Parti Quebecois.
PQ leader Andre Boisclair was among the speakers at a rally in Orford on Sunday to protest against the Charest government's announced sale of the mountain, now in a provincial park named for it, to a private developer.
What these groups have in common is that they were already opponents of the government before it announced the sale, for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment in general, and the Orford project in particular.
For example, the CSN represents the bulk of the public-sector workers on whom the government imposed new contracts last December.
The Orford announcement has given these groups a new cause for the protests against the Charest government that have done such damage to the Liberals' stature in the past 21/2 years.
A mountain, especially one owned by the province and easily visible from the Eastern Townships autoroute, makes a great symbol. Selling it was bound to be unpopular, even if the sale hadn't been against the law, which the government will have to change.
And conserving the mountain (or what's left of it, after the construction of a ski area on it and a golf course at its base) was bound to be a popular cause among people whose jobs or profits don't depend on its further development (local residents are split over the sale). It would certainly be more popular than government employees or sovereignty.
By yesterday, five days after a petition opposing the sale went up on the SOS Parc Orford's web site, it had received more than 10,000 signatures.
Indeed, opposition to the sale cuts across party lines. Quebec Solidaire, the new left-wing party, is also among the supporters of SOS Parc Orford, and one of its spokespersons, Amir Khadir, spoke at Sunday's rally. And the former president of the Liberal party and former member of the National Assembly for Orford riding, Robert Benoit, is among the local opponents of the project.
To create an impression of building momentum, the coalition has organized a series of media events spread out over several weeks, each bigger than the next. Sunday's rally, attended by more than 2,000, will be followed in two weeks by the inevitable benefit concert, in Sherbrooke. Another couple of weeks after that, there will be another rally, in Montreal.
Once again, the Charest government is losing a public-relations battle. And trailing badly in the polls with only a year left until the next election is due, the government should have avoided this one.
In fact, going into this pre-election year, it seemed that avoiding unnecessary controversy would be the government's strategy. That's why it used emergency rules to bulldoze controversial child-care legislation through the Assembly before Christmas, along with the public-sector contracts. It wanted to start the new year with a clean slate.
Less than three months into the year, the slate is once again smeared. In return for bailing out a ski-area operator in what was a safe riding, the Liberals have hurt themselves everywhere else across the province, and even in the Orford riding itself.
They've handed their opponents a popular issue. They've reinforced doubts about Charest's judgment. And they show no sign of cutting their losses by backing out of a deal they never should have got into in the first place.

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