Political fallout in Quebec

Harper's remarks could dash his hopes of making gains in the province, says Pierre Martin

Politique étrangère et Militarisation du Canada

This summer, in Quebec as everywhere, the news has been dominated by the Middle East crisis. Quebecers are reacting with horror at the scope of the devastation. They see this conflict not in terms of some global strategy in the war on terrorism, but primarily from the perspective of the civilian victims, mostly in Lebanon.
For Quebecers, including many opinion leaders, Israel's response to Hezbollah's provocation may be justified, but there is nothing "measured" about it.
Thus, in larger proportions than other Canadians, they have expressed opposition to the Harper government's unequivocal defence of Israel's position, leading some to predict an abrupt end to the Tories' honeymoon in Quebec.
Why is Harper's position given such a cold reception in Quebec? A recent poll by The Strategic Counsel suggests the initial reaction to the conflict is quite similar on either side of the Ottawa River: 77 per cent of Canadians and 79 per cent of Quebecers say Canada should "remain neutral." This does not mean that respondents perceive Israel and Hezbollah as moral equivalents, just that they don't want to give a blank cheque to Israel.
Further, we find that half of the respondents across the country were not aware of Harper's support of Israel's actions. After being told of that position, 61 per cent of Quebecers disagree with it (17 per cent agree), while other Canadians are evenly split.
Many factors explain this. First, Quebecers, particularly francophones, are biased against the use of military force as a solution to conflict. As a minority people, they also tend to side with the weak in armed confrontation. Add to this that Quebec's Lebanese community is large and well integrated, and it is easy to understand the rejection of Harper's position, which has been called cold and insensitive by some editorialists and commentators. Quebecers also are more prone than others to believe that Harper is taking his cue from the White House on Lebanon, and given George Bush's dismal popularity in Quebec, that can't be good.
Does all of this mean that the Lebanese crisis will stop the Conservatives' momentum in Quebec and dash their hope of making gains in the next federal election?
There are signs that it might. In the weeks and months that followed the Conservatives' surprise victory, Quebecers were willing to give his new government a chance to prove itself. The Bloc Québécois was losing points to the Tories among some of its less solid supporters and Gilles Duceppe was unable to find a hook to criticize the government.
Now, however, with Harper completely out of step with Quebec opinion, his opponents have found the hook. With the Prime Minister on the defensive and his cabinet almost voiceless, other important issues also have evolved in ways that cloud up the horizons for the government.
Two obvious examples are fiscal imbalance and softwood lumber. While Jean Charest has made solution to the former the linchpin of success for both Harper's and his own government, there has been scant progress on the issue and high expectations may soon turn into sour disappointment. In the case of softwood lumber, what initially seemed like a success for Harper's policy of "détente" with the U.S. has turned into a burden.
In sum, the Lebanese crisis may just turn out to be the issue that dashes Stephen Harper's hope of gaining seats in Quebec and getting a shot at a majority government.
But then again, it might not.
First, the political impact of the crisis primarily depends on whether Quebecers, and other Canadians for that matter, are likely to make foreign policy a top priority when the time comes to go to the polls. That is far from certain. In recent memory, foreign policy has been virtually absent from election campaign debates and it would probably take many other mishaps for Harper and his ministers to make it a key election issue.
Also, even if Harper's approach to Middle East politics clearly contrasts with the usual Liberal tiptoeing, it does have the merit of clarity. If one thing has become clear about Harper in Quebec as elsewhere, it is that with him, what you see is what you get.
Quebec voters in general have appreciated this aspect of the Prime Minister's personality. As it becomes increasingly clear that his support of Israel is an act of personal conviction and not a response to U.S. policy, even less a calculated electoral move, the issue could lose its potential to dominate election debates, even in Quebec.
If, however, the Prime Minister does not find a way out of the image of a hard-line hawk, if Quebecers continue to see him as insensitive to the devastating toll that Israel's actions are imposing upon Lebanon, if he continues to uncritically condone and support those actions and, finally, if the goal of eradicating Hezbollah with guns and bombs turns out to be a chimera, Harper's foreign policy might be a heavy burden in Quebec.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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