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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Natural Resources Christian Paradis speak to workers in Thetford Mines, Que., on Dec. 13, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Natural Resources Christian Paradis speak to workers in Thetford Mines, Que., on Dec. 13, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)

Tories dangle 'tangible benefits' in exchange for Quebec votes Add to ...

They've been branded sell-outs and made to feel as if they have a "shameful disease."

But after an underwhelming performance in the 2008 election, the Conservative Party's organizers in Quebec are psyched up again, launching a new strategy to go head to head with the Bloc Québécois in French-speaking parts of the province.

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The centrepiece is using a geographical and ideological wedge to try and push back the Bloc toward its left-leaning core in downtown Montreal, while the Conservatives focus on seats in the province's more rural, right-wing regions.

The new strategy entails leaving the Bloc to talk about Quebec culture and long-standing battles between Ottawa and the Quebec government, while the Conservatives speak about the economic advantages that come with having an MP in power, in cabinet or on government benches. The key phrase, according to senior Conservative officials, is to persuade Quebeckers that if they get rid of their Bloc or Liberal MPs and pick a member of Stephen Harper's caucus, they will get "tangible benefits."

Targets

The Conservatives started the 2008 campaign full of hope but ended up with 10 seats, or one fewer than they had at the start. The feeling as all parties are now in pre-electoral jostling is that the Conservatives are best to keep their hopes down, and be content with small gains within the 75-seat province.

"The goal is to keep our ridings, and to add five others would be good," a senior Conservative official said. "With an extra 10 to 15 seats, we'd be hitting the jackpot."

Montreal

The Montreal angle to the Conservative strategy is limited to the West Island. While it's a long shot, the Conservatives are offering a future minister, in the person of former Montreal Alouettes president Larry Smith, to the voters in the traditionally Liberal riding of Lac-St-Louis. Mr. Smith was recently appointed to the Senate, and he is already benefiting from the organizational help of other Conservatives in the Red Chamber, namely senators Leo Housakos, Claude Carignan and Judith Seidman.

"The basic fact is that we won't steamroll over Montreal, but the question is whether we can send a few people who would play a role in the government," a Conservative official said.

Regions

Substantial Conservative gains, in terms of numbers of seats, can only come in francophone ridings in what is known in Quebec as "les régions," or the areas outside of the big cities. Those ridings are currently in the hands of the Bloc, but the Conservatives are willing to bet that the opposition party's support is soft.

"The emphasis will be on the fact that with the Conservative Party, people will get tangible benefits for their region," a Conservative organizer said.

The organizer added that Conservative MPs Denis Lebel in the Lac-St-Jean region and Bernard Généreux in the Lower St. Lawrence have demonstrated to voters that "they are no longer catching a shameful disease when they vote Conservative, and they're putting their region on the map."

Advertising

While it's only an initial salvo, new Conservative Party attack ads clearly target the Bloc, with a former party official calling Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe "too Montreal." The goal is to grab onto a growing left-right divide in Quebec, in which the part of Montreal known as Le Plateau is becoming synonymous with big unions and big government.

Translating as "our region in power," the ad's tagline aims to persuade francophone voters to stop sending Bloc MPs to the opposition benches, saying that the Conservatives offer the only "sensible choice to Quebeckers in the regions."

Block attack

On the ground, the Conservatives are arguing that their MPs actually want to see the federal government succeed and will do anything, without interfering in the approval process, to ensure that their ridings get maximum funding for infrastructures and various projects. That means hammering home the argument that Bloc MPs are absent from the regions, and continuously oppose government projects.

"I want to say, 'Yes, we can all be proud to be Quebeckers.' But we have to go beyond that and ask people, 'What are you getting in terms of regional development?' " Natural Resources Minister and Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis said.

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