In the 2004 federal election, Stephen Harper, as the newly minted Conservative Party leader, won zero seats in Quebec. In 2006, he won 10 seats there, and he did that again in 2008. In 2011, he won only five seats. Since that election, the Prime Minister’s standing in Quebec has gone from bad to worse.
Far from wooing the Québécois by campaigning personally in the province, using Quebec media to explain and defend his policies directly, and engaging in good old-fashioned retail politics, Mr. Harper seems to be further alienating most Quebeckers in an almost calculated way.
Consequently, the vast majority have concluded that he has written off Quebec politically. And not surprisingly, the feeling is mutual.
Ever since becoming leader of the Conservatives, Mr. Harper has left the Quebec political field wide open to his enemies. He’s now everyone’s punching bag in the province, a constant butt of media aspersions and a byword for someone inimical to Quebec’s interests at all levels. Charitable observers attribute this not to malevolence but to indifference and perhaps ignorance – and apparently also to self-interest.
As all Quebeckers know only too well, in 2011, Mr. Harper won his coveted majority elsewhere. And with 30 new seats to be added to the House of Commons before the next election, he will have even less electoral need for Quebec than ever.
This is a dream scenario to delight the hearts of Quebec separatists.
Last September, Quebeckers elected a minority Parti Québécois government. That’s Act I.
Despite the weakness of the PQ’s mandate, many hard-liners within the party believe that this mandate is their last best chance to win a referendum. They are searching for an excuse – any excuse – to trigger one.
As far-fetched and tiresome as it may seem, the PQ leadership may nevertheless try to cobble together enough votes in the National Assembly to hold some form of referendum on the future of Quebec. If this ploy succeeds, that’s Act II.
Then we would have a campaign pitting Pauline Marois as head of the Yes side against über-federalist Philippe Couillard, the new leader of the Liberal opposition, as head of the No side.
But Ms. Marois’s real opponent would be Stephen Harper. And if she can turn the campaign into a referendum on a more independent Quebec versus le Canada de Stephen Harper, that’s Act III.
Mr. Harper’s image in Quebec is now so diabolical that for Quebec federalists to have his support in a referendum campaign would be akin to having the support of the Communist Party during the Cold War. Not only is Mr. Harper not the solution, he’s the problem. Yet, he does not modify his behaviour.
In the 1980 referendum campaign, Pierre Trudeau was a major and successful defender of federalism. In the 1995 referendum campaign, this role fell to Jean Chrétien, strongly assisted by federal Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest.
Will it now fall, by default, to Pierre Trudeau’s son Justin?
If so, it will leave the young Mr. Trudeau looking very much like the great consensus-building defender of a united country – a role that, one would have thought, belongs to the prime minister of Canada.
Peter G. White is past president of the Brome-Missisquoi Conservative Association and former principal secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney.