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Andrew Scheer bets on 'blue axis' to win in Quebec

When National Bank of Canada executive Éric Girard announced this week that he will run for the Coalition Avenir Québec in the Oct. 1 election, it provided more evidence of the emergence of a so-called “blue axis” in the province between the CAQ and federal Conservatives.

Mr. Girard ran for the Tories in the 2015 federal election and had been heavily courted by CAQ Leader François Legault to become his finance-minister-in-waiting as Mr. Legault embarks on an election campaign he looks increasingly likely to win. Mr. Legault’s gain may be a loss for Andrew Scheer. But the Conservative Leader has other reasons to be optimistic about his party’s chances in Quebec in the 2019 federal vote.

Two of them showed up at a weekend gathering of the Conservative Party’s Quebec wing in Saint-Hyacinthe. The move by former Bloc Québécois leader Michel Gauthier to take out a Tory membership card at the meeting aimed to send a message to Quebec sovereigntists: The Bloc is dead, get over it. Among Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats and Mr. Sheer’s Tories, Mr. Gauthier insisted, the choice is obvious. It’s time to paint Quebec blue again.

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Mr. Gauthier plans to campaign, but not run for, the Tories in the 2019 election. Trois-Rivières Mayor Yves Lévesque, who also took out a Tory membership at the weekend meeting, did everything but declare his candidacy. If he does run, it would be the strongest signal yet that Mr. Scheer could become the most successful federal Tory leader in Quebec since Brian Mulroney last swept the province 30 years ago.

No one imagined the bland Mr. Scheer catching on in Quebec when he edged past MP Maxime Bernier to win the Tory leadership a year ago. Yet, even then, Mr. Scheer showed himself to be a savvier politician than many of us appreciated. Mr. Bernier ran on a libertarian platform vowing to scrap supply management. Mr. Scheer courted Quebec dairy farmers and beat Mr. Bernier in his own riding. Since then, he’s only gotten better at the fine art of doing politics in Quebec.

The policy ideas Mr. Scheer and his star Quebec MPs Alain Rayes and Gérard Deltell have been floating appear designed to appeal primarily to lapsed sovereigntists and soft nationalists, many of whom are small-c conservatives anyway. Quebec pundits have noted the striking similarities between the Tory proposals and those being pushed by Mr. Legault’s CAQ, including tougher stands on immigration and less bureaucracy.

Unlike former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Mr. Scheer is not promising constitutional reform. But only die-hard separatists seem to care about that any more. Most Quebeckers would be happy with the odd administrative agreement that allows Quebec to maximize its autonomy under the current Constitution, such as the resolution Quebec Tories adopted on the weekend calling for a deal to allow Quebec to collect federal taxes on Ottawa’s behalf. Quebeckers could then file a single federal-provincial tax return, instead of the two they now must fill out every year.

Mr. Scheer is also open to giving Quebec more power over culture and immigration and has promised to crack down on illegal border crossings. The latter have become a political hot potato in Quebec that threatens to undermine support for the federal Liberals.

Mr. Scheer cannot, of course, abide the CAQ proposal to deport immigrants who fail the so-called “values test” it promises to force newcomers to pass to stay in Quebec. But he doesn’t have to. Like the provincial Liberal government’s Bill 62 banning face-coverings in the reception and provision of public services, the CAQ immigration policy is a smoke-and-mirrors plan aimed at appearing to be doing something to protect Quebec’s identity from being overwhelmed by newcomers. It will have little practical impact on the ground, where accommodation is the rule rather than the exception. Besides, the proposed CAQ values test is not meaningfully different from the existing federal citizenship test immigrants must submit to. It takes an effort to fail it.

The federal Conservatives appear willing to help the CAQ win this fall in the hope that Mr. Legault can return the favour in next year’s federal vote. A fresh CAQ government, provided it does not mess up out of the starting gate, could provide a major boost to the Tories.

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It would not likely be enough to allow Mr. Scheer to match Mr. Mulroney’s exploits in the province. Quebec’s urban/rural divide has only widened since 1988, and the blue axis can never again be what it once was. But it’s a lot stronger than it was a year ago.

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