Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Last Boy Scout

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, Trillium (Thursday January 5, 2006 at 6:20 pm)

Tough, sometimes, being Ontario. Perhaps no other province identifies itself as Canadian first and foremost, without requital. Fearful of a breakup of the country, strong talk about separatists always seems a prudent strategy to reassure Ontarians of one’s electoral credentials (that’s why those words are always delivered in English).

Which is the most interesting thing about the recent release of a new poll.

The poll shows the Tories ahead nationwide, but that may be nothing more than people roused from their Christmas stupor to pay attention to what was an excellent December campaign by the Conservatives and a lacklustre one by the Liberals. Now that the Liberals are putting out policy statements, they may well attract a few stragglers back into the fold.

The interesting thing isn’t the nationwide spread. It’s the movement apparent in the numbers in Quebec. There, the Conservatives have squeaked over 20%, apparently wholly at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois. The last time that happened, for perspective (even if Tory and Reform votes are combined), was in 1997, under the leadership of current Quebec Premier Jean Charest. For such a change to have taken place while the party is led by an Anglophone hailing from Toronto and Alberta is hard to understand.

If it’s not a terrible polling mistake, it points to a dramatic conclusion: that some soft-core Quebec nationalists see a viable political option in the federal Conservatives.

Remember, if you will, that the Bloc Quebecois emerged largely as a splinter group of Quebec conservatives, who had been successfully wooed by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. That some of their supporters might return to the fold at this point means a great deal for both Quebec and, perhaps more curiously, Ontario.

In Quebec, it raises the prospect of three-way races in which the Liberals will no longer stand as the natural alternative to the BQ. The Liberals will no longer be able to take their position in Quebec for granted, and must quickly refocus their campaign in that province if this poll represents a real trend.

But the effect on Ontario will be just as politically interesting. In a province where obstinate (and often heartless) attacks on sovereigntists prove the leader worthy of Canada, the emergence of legitimacy for a second party in that province could throw political choice into chaos. Ontarians fighting for their vision of Canada (as surely as they swarmed buses for Montreal in 1995) will suddenly be offered more than one way to fight.

Will they trust Conservatives to preserve national unity? Will they fear Conservatives’ policy of renegotiating relationships between the federal government and the provinces? If the former, it may support this poll’s movement towards the Liberals. If the latter, it may reverse the poll without the Liberals’ lifting a finger.

Hard to gauge. But the truth is, given that outcome, Harper, too, could stand to refocus his efforts in these two provinces. Because however they vote, Ontarians will be want to believe that they’re doing their duty to Crown and Country.

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