Wooing Quebec, encore

Doug Fischer

17. Actualité archives 2007

A mere three months ago, Conservatives were giddy imagining a majority government after their support in polls rose to 35% among Quebecois voters. That 'evaporated' over Stephen Harper's stance on conflicts in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Now, observers say, the Tories' fall agenda will be carefully massaged to make up the losses in Quebec

Stephen Harper might have more in common with Paul Martin and Jean Chretien than he imagined before he became prime minister.
Like his two Liberal predecessors, Mr. Harper is increasingly being forced to shape his agenda to win favour in Quebec, a province that helped his Conservatives earn a minority government eight months ago and is crucial to his hopes to grab a majority next time around.

That doesn't mean Canadians should expect the parliamentary session that begins tomorrow to be dominated by issues mainly of interest to Quebecers. But what it does mean, say Conservative insiders, is that the legislative agenda will be carefully massaged to earn maximum points in Quebec.

"We're looking for a path that will satisfy the voters who gave us their trust in the last election and at the same time get us new support for the next one," said a policy adviser who spent the summer trying to give the government a fresh look this fall. He asked not to be named.

The Conservatives hope to find some of that support from among the "aspirational class," those middle-class soccer moms and dads who like Mr. Harper's $100-a-month day-care allowance and GST cut. The Tories also believe they can make gains in the immigrant communities that fringe the country's large urban areas.

But mostly the government sees its best chance for a majority by looking for opportunities in Quebec.

Given the province's 75 seats and its famously fickle voting habits, perhaps none of this emphasis should come as a surprise. But what's unexpected is how quickly the government has had to shift more of its focus there.
Just three months ago the Conservatives were riding high in Quebec. With their share of the opinion polling at 35 per cent, they were suddenly dizzy with the possibility they could double or even triple the 10 unanticipated seats they won in January with 24-per-cent support.

"There was incredible optimism they could pick up most of the 30 seats they need for a majority in Quebec alone," says Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the Universite de Montreal. "Then it just evaporated."

What plunged support back to election levels were Lebanon and Afghanistan. In proportions significantly larger than other Canadians, Quebecers opposed Mr. Harper's unequivocal defence of Israel's response to provocation from Hezbollah. And they are much more queasy about Canada's military commitment in Afghanistan than other Canadians.

According to Mr. Martin, francophone Quebecers are "especially biased" against the use of military force as a solution to conflict.

"As a minority people, they tend to side with the weak in armed confrontation," he says. "Add to this a large and well-integrated Lebanese community in Quebec and you begin to understand the province's rejection of the prime minister's positions."

As a result, the government has no interest in another House of Commons debate on Afghanistan, a request made by Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and now being considered by Speaker Peter Milliken.

We'll be answering all the questions the other parties have on Afghanistan (in question period)," Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, said last week. "We don't feel the need for any debate."

Certainly there will be questions, even if the leaderless Liberals, deeply divided on Afghanistan, might want to steer clear of the issue. The NDP and Bloc intend to make Canada's expanded commitment to Afghanistan the focus of their attacks on the government in the first weeks of the fall session.
Just as it used its five short-term priorities (a GST cut, crime measures, childcare allowance, an ethics package and shorter hospital wait times) to stay on course during the spring session, the government hopes to keep ahead of the braying pack in the coming months with a brisk, pro-active legislative flurry that will set the stage for the next election, not expected before spring.

Leading the way will be a series of environmental initiatives to be introduced between this month and spring in what one observer called a "tantalizing political striptease."

After gutting the Liberals' commitment to the Kyoto climate change protocol, the government has virtually no credibility on the environment. That also means it has nowhere to go but up, a momentum that should be helped immeasurably by a scathing assessment of Liberal spending programs linked to Kyoto soon to be released by the auditor-general's office.

And it doesn't hurt that the environment is a bigger concern in Quebec, according to polls, than anywhere outside of smog-clad urban Toronto.
Although Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has been publicly quiet about her plans, it appears she will concentrate on a new Clean Air Act that will combine tough measures to reduce urban smog with a less stringent effort to cut the emission of gases covered under Kyoto.

By pulling back from the Liberals' Kyoto strategy and focusing instead on "less ethereal" measures -- the health benefits of clean air, new initiatives to replace the scrapped EnerGuide energy efficiency program, tougher vehicle pollution standards -- the government hopes to make the environment "a touchable issue ... one that hits voters where they live," the Conservative policy adviser said.

Mr. Martin believes that could play well in Quebec, where polls suggest voters are looking for practical, measurable advances on the environment and where cynicism about the Liberals' commitment to Kyoto remains high.

The government is also likely to propose ways to fix what's come to be known as the fiscal imbalance with the provinces. This will probably include more money for the provinces through equalization and transfer payments for post-secondary education, changes in the way infrastructure money is spent and possibly even lower Canada Pension Plan premiums.

It's not very sexy, but giving money to the provinces is always popular in Quebec, particularly when combined with Mr. Harper's natural inclination to keep the federal nose out of provincial matters.

Lurking in the background, however, are several issues -- same-sex marriage and the gun registry in particular -- with the potential to undermine the government's careful strategy to broaden its Quebec appeal.
Quebecers possess the country's most liberal attitude toward gay marriage, and Justice Minister Vic Toews's plan to reopen the debate is likely to do little except remind Quebecers of the government's social conservative roots in the Reform party.

Still, the government expects to lose the vote, and will hold it early in the session -- probably the week of Sept. 25 -- in the hopes the issue will long be forgotten by the next election.

Plans to scrap the gun registry might not be so easy to stickhandle. Support for tough gun control has always been highest in Quebec, scene of several mass shootings, and Wednesday's rampage at Montreal's Dawson College is only likely to strengthen those feelings.

Some observers believe the government might be able to offset part of the worry with measures designed to crack down on crime and the sale of illegal arms, some of them in Mr. Toews's fall arsenal even before last week's tragedy.
"I don't think they will get back everything they lose by backwards movement on gun control," Mr. Martin says, "but they will score points for being consistent when it comes to getting tough with crime."

It's difficult to assess the fallout in Quebec from some of the other items on the government's fall agenda.

Mr. Harper's Senate reform package is unlikely to make much of a stir. Nor is his ethics legislation, the government's response to the Liberals' sponsorship scandal which has been widely praised in Quebec.

According to Newfoundland political scientist Christopher Dunn, the first two months of the fall session represent the government's best chance to make a good impression in Quebec, and the rest of the country.

"The Liberals won't have a leader until December, the NDP is watching its back as the Green party makes a bit of a surge, the Bloc is protecting its flank from the Conservatives -- this gives the government a lot of open field to run for a touchdown."

The parliamentary session that begins tomorrow will deal with a lengthy list of legislation held over from the spring sitting, as well as a still-evolving series of new measures and possible debates on a range of issues. Here's a quick look at some of what to expect:
- Green Plan 2. Environment Minister Rona Ambrose is expected to release a series of initiatives including a new Clean Air Act, measures to replace the defunct EnerGuide energy program, tougher emission controls for vehicles and polluters. The much-praised Green Plan 1 was launched during the Mulroney era.
- Health-care wait times. The last of the Harper government's five priorities still to be dealt with. It's a measure that may need legislation or might be done through an agreement with the provinces.
- Softwood lumber. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would call an election if the House rejected the controversial deal worked out with the Americans. With Bloc Quebecois support now assured, that's no longer a worry.

- Afghanistan. Acting on a request from the Bloc, Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is expected to rule this week whether to hold an emergency debate on Canada's commitment in Afghanistan.
- Same-sex marriage. Justice Minister Vic Toews is expected to re-open the fractious same-sex marriage debate later this month. During the winter election campaign, the Conservatives promised another vote on the law allowing gay marriage that was passed under the Liberals.
- Fiscal imbalance. The government is expected to propose ways to fix the fiscal imbalance with the provinces, which might include more money through equalization and transfer payments for post-secondary education and changes in the way infrastructure money is spent. Might or might not require legislation.
Among the 22 government bills still in various stages in Parliament are several contentious pieces of legislation, including the accountability act, a bill to eliminate the firearms registry, laws to fix election dates and limit the terms of senators, and measures on the age of sexual consent, conditional sentencing, minimum prison terms for firearm crimes and street racing.

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