Quebec: On s’explique

Our ITQ blogger wonders why the decline of support for Dumont could be good for Stephen Harper, since the same guy who’s making that claim was — in Kady’s recollection, though not mine — delighted at the prospect of a Harper-Dumont alliance back when Dumont was actually doing well in the polls.

First, on the matter of recollection: I don’t have L. Ian’s columns from the time to hand (Inkless Irregulars: feel free to dig ’em up) but I seem to recall he was actually fairly sorrowful about the Harper-Charest thaw. As a former Mulroney government staffer, L. Ian likes him some Tories, and a Harper-Charest alliance would only ever be good news for him. But as a fine journalist, Ian can also see three feet in front of him, and it the motivation for looking away from Charest was rather clear.

But in all events — and here we get to the heart of things — the support of this leader or that, in any province, is not quite the issue. What matters is party organizations and, beyond them, electorates. At the level of organization, the ADQ will always offer better value to the federal Conservatives than the provincial Liberals. That’s because provincial Liberals are usually Liberals, despite the official myth about a perfect divorce between the federal and provincial parties. Charest, who called himself a Conservative for most of his adult life, is an aberration in that party and has had to spend a decade hiding that fact. Most of the people who pull vote for him will be out pulling vote for Liberal candidates at the next federal election, unless they’re badly organized, unmotivated, or sitting on their hands to quicken the replacement of Stéphane Dion. So Harper’s entourage has always preferred Charest to the PQ, because while they know their man would give a PQ premier a mostly unanticipated and ferocious fight, it’s a fight he’d simply rather avoid. But they harbour no illusions that a strong Quebec Liberal Party is of particular utility to the Conservative Party of Canada ADQ workers, on the other hand, have no federal home, or didn’t until a half-dozen of their number got elected around Quebec City as Harper Conservatives two years ago.

At the level of electorates, it barely matters who the leaders of the provincial parties are or how they’re doing. What matters is whether anyone in Ottawa seems to speak for Quebec: its largely small-town preoccupations, its unusually tax-sensitive population (Albertans already have low taxes and don’t care nearly as much about lower taxes as Quebecers do), its eagerness for an exit route from stale debates. On this level there are basically two options, Stubbornly Separatist and Willing To Look Elsewhere. The good news for Harper in recent polls is not Charest’s strength per se, it’s the swelling ranks of Willing To Look Elsewhere. They can vote Liberal or ADQ in provincial elections as they like, but in federal elections he needs them to look to him. And so far that continues to look like a safe bet.

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