MONTREAL -The Bloc Quebecois has always been a one-trick pony. In its first three elections from 1993 to 2000, it ran on sovereignty. In the last two, in 2004 and 2006, it ran on the sponsorship scandal.
In this election, the Bloc is running without the benefit of either. Sovereignty is on the shelf; even the Parti Quebecois says so. And sponsorship is in the rear-view mirror, the Liberals having been well and truly punished at the polls.
The Bloc's lack of a raison d'etre is much more telling than any lack of a detailed policy platform. Founded as a protest party after the death of Meech Lake, it evolved into a party of defending Quebec's interests. But since it can never be in government, its policy platform is meaningless.
The Bloc's leader, Gilles Duceppe, is now in his fifth and almost certainly last campaign. And it isn't going very well. He has the body language of someone who wants to go home. He can still do indignation, but not with much conviction. And he doesn't have a message that resonates with voters.
In search of a new reason for being as the writ was dropped last weekend, he told Quebecers they had to vote for the Bloc to prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority. The Bloc as the Block Party. It was the sort of desperate message a party usually puts out when it is trying to save the furniture in the last days of the campaign, not as an opening salvo.
The polls haven't helped the Bloc's morale, either. They indicate what everyone feels on the ground, that the Bloc is slipping badly, down from a high water mark of 49% in 2004, and 42% in 2006, to just 30% in two polls by CROP and Leger Marketing at the start of the campaign. From the 51 seats it won in the last election, the Bloc could be reduced to 30 seats this time around, with most of its losses likely to be to the Conservatives off the island of Montreal.
While the Conservatives are shrinking the Bloc from the right, the NDP are squeezing them from the left, polling in double digits both on and off the island of Montreal. This is quite troubling for the Bloc, who had never been challenged on the left until the arrival of Thomas Mulcair, in the House and on the supper-hour news, as the face of the NDP in Quebec. This may be a parked vote, but for the Bloc the problem is that it is parked somewhere else.
To add quite a bit of insult to this injury, Duceppe has had to deal with a stinging critique by a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister, Jacques Brassard, that the Bloc "has become the clone of the NDP." Published as an op-ed in La Presse on Wednesday, Brassard's piece created an immediate political sensation, inside the sovereignty movement and among Quebec's entire political class. Accusing Duceppe and the Bloc of adopting the "bric-a-brac ideology of the left (state interventionism, egalitarianism, pacifism, ecologism and anti-Americanism," all wrapped up as "Quebec values",) Brassard concludes: "The Bloc has become the twin of the NDP, that archaic Canadian socialist party."
Wow! Next time he'll tell you what he really thinks. There hasn't been such a sneering, sarcastic political broadside in Quebec since Pierre Trudeau was a pamphleteer in the old Cite Libre days.
The comparison to the NDP is wounding on several levels. First, the Bloc prides itself on being the "defender of Quebec's interests" in Ottawa, and the NDP is nothing if not a party of centralizers, especially when it comes to expanding federal spending power in provincial jurisdictions such as health care and education.
Second, given a choice between the real NDP and an imitation, the voters might well choose the real thing.
And third, Brassard's letter has opened old wounds, and may lead to a settling of new scores inside the sovereignty movement, which is in the middle of a huge identity crisis.
For the Bloc and Duceppe, this comes back to the lack of a raison d'etre. When the Conservatives broke through in Quebec in 2006, they also smashed the polarization of the vote between federalist and separatist camps, of which the Liberals and Bloc had been mutual beneficiaries.
In government, the Conservatives have two mantras, one is that they are delivering the goods for Quebec and the other is that the Bloc isn't.
And there have been two defining moments. The first was in November, 2006, when Harper proposed the resolution recognizing Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. The second was in the February, 2007 budget, when he resolved the fiscal imbalance file that had been Duceppe's big hobby horse.
Duceppe had no choice but to go along with both. Since then, as the Bloc's feeble campaign slogan has it, they are "Present in Ottawa."
But there's another term for how things are going for the Bloc so far in the campaign: Ca va mal.
- L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy Options magazine.