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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Stop tickling Quebec and win. Or tickle it often and lose Add to ...

So maybe benign neglect is the best political strategy after all, given the results of a federal by-election in Quebec. Pay a lot of attention and get nowhere; pay less attention and score an upset.

From the day Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office to the last election, he focused his political attentions on Quebec more than on any other part of Canada. Spreading his Conservative Party into that province would make it a truly national party and, so the Conservatives believed, produce majority governments.

So we witnessed a series of blandishments, political bribes and policy baubles/boondoggles designed to impress French-speaking Quebeckers, or at least to convince them that the Harper Conservatives were not a crowd with horns.

Unhappily for the Conservatives, all this went for next to naught in the last campaign when Quebeckers spurned the party over two relatively minor issues: small cuts to two cultural programs, and a criminal justice matter.

Privately, a lot of Conservatives outside Quebec were confused and downright angry at what they considered an undeserved slap in the face. Conservative MPs who had been forced to stomach policies to woo Quebec said never again.

At the highest echelons of the party, the search for a majority government turned away from the ingrates in Quebec (or so they were perceived) to Ontario. There, reasoned the Conservatives, lay fallow ground for sowing and reaping political gains. After all, the party had made considerable progress among ethnic voters, shaking that once-impregnable Liberal fortress. The party did well, too, in many Ontario ridings, even if Conservatives did not win them.

So it was to Ontario that, after the last election, the Conservatives turned their attention and their spending hose: $4-billion for harmonizing the federal and provincial sales taxes. Done. Changing the formula for federal-provincial transfers to make them a per capita program instead of the formula that had disadvantaged Ontario. Done. Billions for Ontario's auto manufacturing sinkhole. Done. Money for helping Ontario settle immigrants. Done. A national securities regulator, desired by Ontario. Being done.

Then along came the infrastructure program, injecting billions of dollars into the country, including project after project for Ontario. Across the province, Conservative ministers didn't miss a trick in associating themselves and their government with all that spending, as they did all across Canada.

Quebec, while not forgotten, was certainly given a back seat to this Ontario-first approach to winning a majority government. And, in fairness, the Conservatives' discovery of Ontario was also rooted in economic reality: The province's economy was suffering badly.

Canada's old milch cow, the province from which so much money flowed to the provinces to its east and to Manitoba (and sometimes Saskatchewan), was ailing - not just temporarily but deeply and structurally. Strange as it might seem outside the province, Ontario needed help.

In Quebec, it appeared just a few months ago that the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff were improving their standing, reverting to being the main federalist alternative to the Bloc Québécois. But then the Liberals got themselves into an internal mess that was splashed across the Quebec media about who should be their Quebec lieutenant. The gambit to precipitate an early election went over badly. And Mr. Ignatieff failed to impress in his Quebec appearances.

Slowly, the polls - for what they're worth - showed a drift away from the Liberals toward the Conservatives, a drift occurring in other parts of Canada, too.

On Monday, therefore, the Conservatives took a seat (Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup) previously held by the Bloc in the Lower St. Lawrence, a part of Quebec that historically prefers any party but les rouges . It's part of a band of seats in Quebec on both sides of the St. Lawrence that is nationalist, rather anti-elitist, rural and small town, and that has voted for the Union Nationale, the Créditistes, the Parti Québécois, the Bloc and now the Conservatives.

The Conservatives chose a popular local mayor, Bernard Généreux, who captured nearly 43 per cent of the vote and allowed the Conservatives to win their 11th Quebec seat. No one should read much into by-elections. Still, it's an encouraging Conservative result.

Go figure. Stop tickling Quebec and win. Tickle it often and lose.

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