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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper salutes the crowd after a victory speech at his Calgary election headquarters on Oct. 14, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper salutes the crowd after a victory speech at his Calgary election headquarters on Oct. 14, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Andrew Steele

Is majority possible? Add to ...

There is a growing theory that a majority is not possible for Stephen Harper in this election because his argument against a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition will undermine him in Quebec.

Chantal Hebert puts forth the idea with insight and verve here.

But turning the Conservatives from the provincialist party to the Canadian nationalist party is hardly a losing proposition.

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In the days after the last election, I argued that this was exactly the strategy they should pursue to create a durable Conservative Party of Canada. The alternative, the Mulroney alliance of Western So-Cons, Ontario Fiscal-Cons and Quebec nationalists was always doomed to be a boom and bust alternative to the Liberals, rather than the natural governing party of Canada.

"If [the Conservatives]are to build a durable coalition, they must adjust their position on the National Question either in Quebec or outside it. Theoretically, Mr. Harper could attempt to mimic the Liberal coalition by moving both sets of supporters closer to the middle ground. But the Tories' base in English Canada is large, powerful and unlikely to moderate on this fundamental question.

The surer course is to capture the federalist pole from the Liberals in Quebec. This might mean fewer seats in Quebec in the short-term, but it would form a solid intellectual foundation that could be maintained for generations. This position would have coherence - pro-Canada in both Quebec and the rest of the country - as opposed to being contradictory, like the existing coalition of 'francophones and Francophobes.'"

Mr. Harper didn't read the above and say "Eureka!" Rather, he fell into this strategy during the Coalition Crisis when he was forced to hammer the "separatist" button to survive. Astonished by the popular support that surged against the coalition proposal, Mr. Harper realized the power of nationalism.

Let's recall, the polls after the crisis demonstrate how miserably unpopular the idea of a Liberal-NDP coalition with support from the Bloc was.

Harper could make a single argument in the looming election of "Harper or the Separatists (or sometimes Socialists)" in an attempt to polarize the electorate and goose the Conservative vote in English Canada.

Mr. Ignatieff has taken some strong steps to inoculate himself to this charge, but it remains to be seen if any type of inoculation will work. Clearly, the Conservative party is not taking yes for an answer, running ads charging Mr. Ignatieff of plotting a "reckless coalition" despite his pleas of innocence.

Generally speaking, this strategy is reminiscent of Dalton McGuinty's polarization strategy around religious school funding. It is an attempt to turn the election from a referendum on the government or a multiplicity of issues into a single ballot question of "Harper or the Separatists and their Liberal-NDP allies."

Harper could hammer the point again and again and again until it's the only thing people are talking about. It should drown out issues like the deficit, Afghanistan or the economy where there is a broad consensus that no party wants to take a risky position outside rhetorical generalities. If executed properly, it could force Ignatieff and Layton completely on the defensive in English Canada.

The polling taken immediately after the coalition crisis showed a huge swing to the Conservatives. If they can replicate that swing in part or in whole, there is a major opening for the Conservatives to flip seats to their column.

Let's consider how that kind of strategy might play out in English Canada first.

First, we will make the assumption that the Conservatives will lose no English Canadian seats with this strategy. This may be false. Conservative-held Ontario seats with a significant francophone population like Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry could be in trouble if the "anti-Separatist" rhetoric moves to "anti-Quebec" and then "anti-French" in perception.

However, I will try to balance this with the broad assumption that Conservatives will not beat Liberal incumbents in Toronto, using this strategy or any other. Ontario was second to Alberta in opposition to the coalition, so it's not impossible to conceive of a seat like Don Valley West or Scarborough Southwest shifting, albeit really unlikely.

So where is movement possible?

The fact is that the NDP are hitting above their weight currently, and are the party with the most vulnerable new incumbents for the Conservatives to target.

Northern Ontario has six vulnerable NDP MPs, Southern Ontario has two and British Columbia another five. A polarization strategy based on anti-separatist rhetoric may work very well to push these seats away from the NDP and toward the Conservatives. The fine people of Welland, Thunder Bay and Burnaby are not known for their abiding love of Gilles Duceppe. If the Conservatives can run the table and supplant the NDP in these swing seats, they are up 12.

The Liberals have a few vulnerable incumbents in B.C. as well. British Columbia has always had a strained relationship with "over the mountains" and should respond well to this messaging. In addition, there are some loose fish in Ontario that could come to the Conservatives in such a scenario, although it will be tougher than the NDP seats. Let's say another 5 are low-hanging fruit and then it gets pretty tough.

Atlantic Canada has almost no fertile ground for the Conservatives, with this strategy or another. There might be one or two seats here and there, but the coalition crisis did not create the sudden shift in public opinion in the East it did in Ontario and the West. There is the possibility of a mass swing to the Conservatives drawing along some opposition seats here, but short of that there little to count on.

The sum from English Canada appears to be the potential to be up around 15 or a maximum of 20.

The question for Quebec is how serious the blowback will be against Harper.

For that, we can consult the polling taken at the time of the Coalition Crisis. While the coalition was an unpopular idea for about 60 per cent of Canadians, a majority of Quebecers did support the idea.

However, almost 30 per cent in Quebec did not support the coalition.

The high water mark for the Conservatives in Quebec was 2006, when they received 24.6 per cent of the vote.

Certainly, the coalition crisis and the Conservative response had an immediately and negative impact on the Conservative vote in the province. But it was not a demolition. Harper retained support levels around 15 per cent in Quebec.

It's notable that Harper retained his ten seats in Quebec in 2008, despite losing about 3 per cent of the vote (24.6 per cent down to 21.7 per cent) from his 2006 high.

There is a long-established trend in Quebec to note the government choice of English Canada and then throw their weight in whole or in part behind that choice to have a voice in government.

Richard Johnston, in Letting the People Decide, notes the existence of two somewhat contradictory claims about Quebeckers' political behaviour. The first is that the party will hew to one party over all the others despite what the rest of the country is doing. This was the Liberals before 1984, the Conservatives in 1984 and 1988, and the Bloc Quebecois since.

The other is that Quebec monitors the situation in the rest of the country and follow them. "As a national minority living under a Westminster-style single-party majority-government system, francophone Quebec cannot afford the luxury of being in opposition. They must identify the party most likely to form the government and support it. Sometimes their support can make the difference between a minority and a majority government."

His longitudinal study of the 1988 elections shows that part of the Quebec electorate was indeed waiting to see which way the rest of Canada would go.

So it is reasonable to expect that Quebec will continue to do what it has done throughout history: cleave to one party - currently the Bloc - to create a large block of Quebec seats that can be used to defend and promote Quebec's interests.

It is also reasonable to expect that there is a segment of Quebec voters who will run to power, likely found in the same places where Quebecers ran to power in 2006 and 2008, namely the 10 seats they hold.

It is not a sure thing that Harper would be wiped out in Quebec for running an anti-separatist campaign. If Harper comes out of English Canada clearly positioned to form another government, he may be able to appeal to enough Quebecers wishing to back the winner to hold some of his Quebec seats and form a majority.

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