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Quebec remains politically volatile, poll shows

Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to Opposition questions over a possible inquiry in the construction industry Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebeckers have lost trust in their provincial government, but they still have faith in Ottawa despite their minimal presence in the Conservative cabinet, a new poll shows.

The finding suggests Quebec remains open to further political shifts following surprising swings in the last election that saw the near obliteration of the Bloc Québécois and the dramatic rise of the NDP in the province.

"I don't believe the fluctuations are over," pollster Nik Nanos said of the situation in Quebec.

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He added it's "unlikely that the NDP can hold on to the same number of seats that it won in the last election," which helps explain why the Conservatives have settled a number of irritants with the Charest government in recent weeks as they look to the 2015 ballot.

The Harper Conservatives fell to only five MPs in Quebec on May 2, losing half of their pre-election caucus. Still, the Harper government has not stopped at a pre-election deal that opened the door to oil exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Earlier this month, Ottawa signed a $2.2-billion sales-tax harmonization deal with Quebec, and promised to build a new multibillion-dollar link over the St. Lawrence River at Montreal to replace the aging Champlain Bridge.

The Nanos poll suggests that in terms of the federal government, Quebeckers are within 0.01 point of the national average on the overall "trust barometer," giving Ottawa a mark of 4.62 out of 10 on issues such as contracting, appointments and serving the public interest.

On the provincial front, however, Quebeckers are well below the national average in the trust they place in their government, coming in last with a rating of 4.27 out of 10. That number is 0.43 points below the average trust level in provincial governments across Canada, highlighting concerns among Quebeckers over widespread corruption in the construction industry.

In particular, Quebeckers offer a trust rating of only 3.51 out of 10 in the procurement of provincial contracts by the Charest government, compared to a rating of 4.38 out of 10 at the federal level.

The numbers suggest that the current Conservative government has convinced Quebeckers of its ability to offer good financial management of the public purse, which could help the party in its effort to win back seats in the province, starting in its former stronghold of Quebec City.

"The Conservative strategy of focusing on competence and what a government can practically deliver for Quebeckers is probably a prudent strategy in terms of incrementally having a shot at those NDP ridings that will come loose in the next election," Mr. Nanos said.

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The NDP remains the main political force at the federal level in Quebec, with 59 of the province's 75 seats in the House of Commons. A series of polls since the election have shown that Quebeckers remain satisfied with their decision to flock in droves to the NDP, which is now the Official Opposition in Ottawa.

However, the party is facing upheaval following last August's death of its popular leader, Jack Layton. The ongoing leadership race could see the election of deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, who enjoys a high public profile in Quebec, but the current front-runner, Brian Topp, is less charismatic and is not as well known in the province, even though he grew up south of Montreal.

In addition, the NDP is facing a controversy over its one-member, one-vote leadership selection process, which leaves little say to its supporters in Quebec, where party membership severely lags behind the other provinces.

The Conservatives still face icy waters in Quebec, where the party's emphasis on the monarchy and the military is not winning it many friends. The government has also faced a backlash over its appointment this week of a second unilingual anglophone judge to the Supreme Court.

Finally, the Harper government has taken the risk of making new enemies in Quebec over $35-billion in shipbuilding contracts, which will be announced Wednesday without any guarantees for the province's industry.

The NDP has taken another approach to the file. "We want to make sure that everybody has a share of this contract," said NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel.

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