The federal Conservatives are going to be watching the Quebec election very closely. And not for the reason you might think.
The election, which Premier Jean Charest is expected to call this week, appears straightforward. On the one side, you have an old and tired government facing allegations of corruption, students in the streets and a general dissatisfaction among the public with the state of things. On the other side, an unpopular PQ leader, Pauline Marois, provokes fears of reopening the sovereignty debate.
Business executive Francois Legault and his new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) appear to have been squeezed out of this polarized debate. Nonetheless, the future for the federal Conservatives in Quebec, if there is one, could be tied to their fortunes.
With the various slights Mr. Harper has inflicted on the province over the past year – the "royal" thing for the navy and air force, cuts to Radio Canada, toughened rules for EI, to name just three – you might think that the Tories will be hard pressed to keep their five Quebec seats in the next federal election, and you're probably right.
More important, many federalist Quebeckers fear that if the PQ comes to power and begins building the case for another referendum on sovereignty, Stephen Harper will be ill equipped to respond. A Western-based, Conservative federal government will have few champions, either within its own caucus or within the province, to counter a separatist threat.
But Conservative strategists have different thoughts. They think Quebeckers are reaching the limits of their tolerance for a province that is deeply in debt – the gross debt now stands at 55 per cent of GDP – exorbitantly taxed and badly run. (Corruption inquiries are rarely associated with good government.)
Even if the PQ does win, the sovereigntists are on the defensive. The leadership is geriatric, and support for an independent Quebec has been waning over time. Fundamentally, the student protesters are right: the real issues are economic. How is the Quebec government to rein in its debt and make its business environment more competitive while preserving as much as possible of its particularly generous welfare state?
The left side of that argument is well represented, both provincially and federally, and on the street. Conservatives – both large and small-c – believe there will be increasing appeal over time for an alternative from the right, that at least some Quebeckers are ready to fundamentally rethink the assumptions of their society, what with the bridges falling down and all.
They may be in a minority, but they may be a larger minority than some suspect. The performance of the CAQ in this campaign might give some idea of whether conservative arguments have any hope of making headway in Quebec.
After all, for the Conservatives in Ottawa, it wouldn't take much to improve on five seats.
Of course, the federal NDP under Tom Mulcair are hoping to use their large Quebec base as a springboard to power. So rather than conservative ideas being imported into Quebec, socially democratic ones could be exported from it.
Either way, Quebec is becoming the centre of attention, once again.