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Conservatives caught between the Rock and a hard place

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, right, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters/Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

The vote in the National Assembly was unanimous. The 117 members from all political stripes, spoke in a single voice to condemn Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's decision to offer a $4.2-billion guaranteed loan to help fund the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Premier Jean Charest had reiterated last week his strong opposition to federal funding of the Lower Churchill project and the construction of an underwater transmission line to Nova Scotia. Ottawa had never funded Hydro-Québec projects in the past. So for Quebeckers the question was, why should Newfoundland and Labrador get federal money?

The unanimous vote sent a clear signal to federal Conservatives that ignoring Quebec demands could cost them dearly at the polls on May 2. The funding promise may have helped appease the anger still lingering in Newfoundland and Labrador from the past election, but it only aggravated an already difficult situation for them in Quebec.

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Mr. Harper's Conservatives were shutout in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2008 when former premier Danny Williams launched his ABC campaign: Anything But Conservative.

But Mr. Harper knows that Mr. Charest is no Danny Williams. The Quebec Premier's hands are tied. There will be no ABC campaign in Quebec. That would mean giving the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois even more seats then the 49 they won last time. "I don't personally believe that supporting a separatist party is an option," Mr. Charest said last week.

But there was no enthusiasm expressed either for Mr. Harper's Conservatives. He had refused to meet local voters expectations of federal funding for a new sport arena in Quebec City. And now Newfoundland and Labrador had been given what many consider to be an unfair advantage in developing its hydroelectric potential.

Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, appeared almost in a state of panic when he responded to the Lower Churchill announcement with a promise that Quebec would receive a $2.2-billion compensation package by September 15, 2011 for harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the federal GST more than 20 years ago. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had refused to make such a commitment in the federal budget he tabled just before the election was called.

The impact of the Conservative campaign strategy in Quebec remains uncertain. At best, Mr. Harper can hope to hold on to most of the ridings he already has. But a worst-case scenario may also be unfolding. Perhaps that is why Mr. Charest has decided to watch the campaign from the sidelines. He can't know at this point whether Mr. Harper will succeed in winning his coveted majority government with less support from Quebec than in 2008 and what that would mean for the province.

But what is certain is Quebec and Ottawa relations are coming to a crossroads. The Charest government remains highly unpopular and the Conservatives could lose ground in the province.

If another Tory minority emerges from the campaign, then Quebec can breathe a sigh of relief. It will have some leverage in making its demands known in Ottawa. These include help to develop the Old Harry oil and gas prospect in the Gulf of St-Lawrence, a share of the multibillion-dollar federal shipbuilding contract and assurance that the province's share of federal transfer payments will remain intact when the agreement comes up for renewal in 2014. If it's a majority Conservative government with few representatives from Quebec, then all bets are off.

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Lurking in the background is the prospect of a separatist Parti Québécois government winning the next provincial election, which could happen as early as next year. And so far, that scenario hasn't even begun to sink in with any of the federalist parties in Quebec.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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