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Saint-Maurice-Champlain MP Lise St-Denis announces that she is jumping from the NDP to join the Liberal party as interim Liberal leader Bob Rae looks on during a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Saint-Maurice-Champlain MP Lise St-Denis announces that she is jumping from the NDP to join the Liberal party as interim Liberal leader Bob Rae looks on during a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Defection reminds NDP and Liberals it's Quebec or bust Add to ...

The Great Game is afoot in the province of Quebec.

Saint-Maurice-Champlain MP Lise St-Denis’s defection from the NDP to the Liberals on Tuesday is more than a preconvention boost for a party that needs one.

She reminds us all that, for the Liberals and NDP, the fight for Quebec is the fight that matters above all.

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As Ms. St-Denis put it with unnecessary bluntness: Last May, Quebeckers did not vote for the NDP. They “voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton is dead.”

The party’s 59 Quebec MPs are mostly young, inexperienced or both. It is an accidental caucus.

If the Official Opposition wants to remain the Official Opposition after the 2015 election, it must replace the giddy infatuation that drove Quebeckers to abandon the Bloc Québécois with something more sober and more real. Otherwise, the NDP will go back to being what it always was: an English Canadian party of social protest that attracts the support of about one Canadian in six.

For the Liberals, the stakes are equally high. Within the present political reality, they have no hope of picking up 50 seats in Ontario next time out. The suburban sprawl of Greater Toronto will remain lost to them until the province’s political fundamentals realign, which isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The prospects in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland are hardly less bleak.

The path to returning to official opposition status – the sine qua non of a Liberal revival – runs through Quebec. Tuesday was one down; 58 to go.

Unless the Bloc Québécois stages a Lazarus-like revival – and with Quebec politics, who knows? – this is strictly a Liberal/NDP fight. The Conservatives may or may not win a few extra seats in the Quebec City region next time out; they are going to unseemly lengths to unseat Irwin Cotler in his Montreal riding, and there are always hopes for a pickup in the Eastern Townships or in the national capital region.

But the Conservative coalition runs from Southern Ontario west to Vancouver Island. Prime Minister Stephen Harper long ago abandoned his dream of winning over Quebeckers by respecting their aspirations for domestic autonomy.

Loan guarantees for Lower Churchill. Putting the Royal back in the Navy and Air Force. The national securities regulator. The Senate reform bill. Does this look to you like a government determined to make gains in French Canada?

So it’s down to the two opposition parties. The New Democrats have the advantage of incumbency. The Liberals have the advantage of historical ties. Neither has a leader.

Strangely, Tuesday’s bit of floor crossing boosts the campaigns of Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp. Talk to NDPers without a notebook in your hand, and they speak of stark fears that they will lose in 2015 everything they gained in 2011. Under the circumstances, the argument in favour of choosing a leader of and from Quebec is compelling.

And here’s a question, for those who support closer co-operation between the Liberals and the NDP: How can the two parties work together when neither can prosper without defeating the other in Quebec?

Lise St-Denis did more than just cross the floor. She woke everybody up.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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