Party must look to the future

Environment, not old Quebec stand, should be focus

Course à la chefferie du PLC

As they descend on Montreal for the opening of their national convention today, there are three numbers Liberal delegates might keep in mind between now and the time when they cast their final leadership ballot on Saturday.

The first is zero, the sum of the Quebec MPs who voted against a Conservative motion that recognizes that the "Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."

If ex-intergovernmental affairs minister Michael Chong had spent a bit more time listening to his Liberal colleagues from Quebec over the course of the parliamentary debate that led to the overwhelming endorsement of the motion Monday night, he might have remained in Stephen Harper's cabinet.

Chong said he resigned because he could not support a resolution that he described as a vindication of ethnic nationalism. But the people most likely to be adversely affected by such a restrictive reading of Quebec reality had a very different take on the motion.

More so than any other group in the House of Commons, Quebec Liberals MPs can claim to speak for non-francophone Quebecers. Most of them win massive majorities in ridings where francophone voters are largely outnumbered. Those MPs are not in the business of supporting resolutions that treat their constituents as second-class citizens.

In French in Quebec, the word Québécois is commonly understood to be inclusive of the increasingly diverse population of the province. While the common language is different, the nationalism on offer is every bit as civic as Chong's Canadian ideal.

Surely, no one is suggesting that it is necessary to forgo French for English to achieve an inclusive social model.

It is a source of perpetual fascination to most Quebec insiders that when it comes to developments in the province, so many outside it take their cue from the sovereignists who have failed to achieve their goal for decades rather than from the front-line federalists who have kept them in check for all that time, often against very long odds.

The other number is 6 per cent, the Liberal score in Monday night's by-election in the suburban Montreal riding of Repentigny. As Le Soleil columnist Michel C. Auger put it yesterday, more francophone Quebecers believe that Elvis Presley is alive than support the federal Liberals.

The Repentigny results are in line with the dismal showing of the party outside Montreal in the last election. While the leadership campaign has made Quebec federal Liberals feel better about themselves, that has yet to translate into signs of life for the party and its next leader.

The third number is 26 per cent, the Green party score in the by-election that took place in the Ontario riding of London North Centre. It signals that there will be a fourth player vying for the progressive vote in the next general election.
That is particularly bad news for the NDP. Its fourth-place finish, 12 points behind the Greens, has shown its assumption that it could overtake the Liberals and become the default alternative to the Conservatives for what it is: a delusion.

But while the Liberals managed to hang on to their London seat Monday night, a strong Green showing combined with an ongoing weakness in Quebec could deprive them of a shot at victory in the next election.

To them and to the Conservatives, this by-election result sends a common message.

The Harper government has spent much of the fall trying to cement a base with law-and-order measures, talk of future tax cuts and direct subsidies to parents. The hope was to mobilize middle-class voters behind the party and squeeze past a divided opposition.

But in the end, the Green party did a better job of rallying support than the government and the Liberals.

The environment, not Quebec's arrangement with the rest of Canada, has dominated the public discourse this fall; an overwhelming number of voters currently disapprove of Harper's performance on the issue. It is the calling card of the Green party and it stands to be the sleeper issue in the next election.
As of today, the Liberals would be well-advised to spend as little time as possible enshrining their status as an endangered species in Quebec and as much time as possible supplying their party with oxygen on the environment.
After all, it is not as if the Liberal record on the environment was that much more commendable than the party's standing in Quebec.

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