Quebec rethinks Harper

Élections 2006

Judging by the latest polls, the scenario of a minority Conservative government -- albeit with virtually no seats in Quebec -- is possible. Would this be as dramatic as the Liberals want the rest of Canada to believe? Not at all.
True, the sovereigntists would be quick to rejoice. They would proclaim that this is a graphic illustration of the division of the country. They would say that "English Canada" has chosen a party whose "values" are opposite to those of Quebeckers. They would predict that the situation will widen the gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada and pave the way for a winning referendum on sovereignty.
But pretty soon, the rhetoric would fade and reality would kick in. And the reality is that the change would be welcomed by many Quebeckers -- namely the Quebec Liberals and the large group of "soft nationalists" who vote for the Bloc because they can't stomach the Liberal Party of Canada. Many Quebeckers are hugely fed up with the Liberal arrogance and sense of entitlement, and on several key issues the Conservatives are much closer to Quebec's political consensus.
After Mr. Harper strongly came out in favour of eliminating the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces and allowing provinces to have a say in some international organizations, Premier Jean Charest, who after all is a former leader of the Conservative Party, came within an inch of formally giving him his support. Mr. Harper's own convictions, as well as the Conservatives' long-held tradition, are in tune with Quebec's traditional demands for greater autonomy and for some degree of decentralization.
In the next federal election, which will happen sooner rather than later because the future government will likely be a minority one, it wouldn't be surprising if the rich, powerful electoral machine of the Quebec Liberal Party were behind the Conservative Party. Such outside help is what allowed Brian Mulroney to sweep the province in 1984 and 1988 (even then, the Conservatives had so few roots in Quebec that they had to rely on provincial allies).
But let's go back to the scenario of a close Tory victory with hardly any representation in Quebec. Mr. Harper will have to find a way to bring several Quebeckers into his cabinet. He could select two or three of his best candidates and wait for a by-election (or even for a general election) to have them elected. This is what former Conservative prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark did when they won elections without a sizable Quebec representation. Of course, Mr. Harper would have to act on his promises for decentralization.
Nothing succeeds like power. A Conservative government would be much more attractive than a mere opposition party. More high-profile Quebeckers would be interested in joining in.
As for the "values" issue, if Mr. Harper and his candidates go on playing the same tune they played during the first half of this campaign, they will definitely put to rest the notion that this party is inherently in favour of social conservatism.
An old rule of politics is that a party moves toward the centre as soon as it comes to power. If Mr. Harper's Conservatives form a non-dogmatic centre-right government along the lines of the former Mulroney government, Quebeckers will certainly be able to live with it.
The Conservatives' key to Quebec is an election victory in the rest of Canada. Then, a whole new chapter would open that might be completed in a following general election. Or maybe, by then, the Liberal Party will have had a chance of regenerating itself after too many years in power.
Beneath the tired rhetoric of the present Quebec campaign, whose main actors are the Bloc and the Liberals, things are moving in Quebec.
As the Conservatives are gaining ground in the national polls, Quebeckers are starting to pay attention to them for the first time in years.

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