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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quebec By-Elections Herald Change and Uncertainty

What Happened in Quebec Politics Yesterday?

I watched the by-elections last night and had to wonder what is going on in Quebec. For the most part I think it is healthy for democracy and could be good for Canada. The reality is these events were by-elections. Personality of candidates often means more in those events than party or policy or leadership. There is a reality of the timing of these by-elections too. The current minority government could be brought down any given day the House is sitting and now the NDP alone can save the Conservative’s bacon in a confidence vote. So the consequences of a local constituency “getting it wrong” are not too damaging. So why not send the powers that be a message?

Enough context (excuses???) Here are the messages I got from the result in Quebec last night. Dion and Duceppe are damaged and personally deflated by these results. Layton is the big leadership winner by making a breakthrough in Quebec for the first time and very decisively.

The personality issue played well for the NDP with Mulcair but he also had some fascinating political manoeuvrings at play in his victory too. He attracted a large segment of the Bloc voters (Ouch Mon. Duceppe – that has to hurt) and what were those Bloc voters saying? Were they ticked with the Bloc and wanted to “block” the Liberals. Don’t forget Mulcair was a Charest Liberal Cabinet Minister who resigned and turned Dipper. His election as a Dipper sends a message to the federal and provincial Liberals and bruises them both badly.

The Conservative win by Lebel in Roberval was stunning. Not only was the margin of victory impressive it was in separatist country. This Conservative win was by a guy who, a few short months ago, was also a Bloc party member and presumably a separatist himself. Did Mr. Harper’s Quebec Nation sentiments trump his stance on Afghanistan? One can’t help wonder if Lebel is eventually going to be to Harper what Bouchard was to Mulroney.

Duceppe had something to smile about winning St Hyacinthe “comfortably” and over a Conservative…who will no doubt be breathing down the Bloc’s neck come the next election.

Dion is the sacrificial lamb in all of this. Quebec is still smarting and clearly unforgiving over Adscam and about being “played” by the cynical Chr├ętien government. It was the Chr├ętien government who tried to buy Quebec’s loyalty with flags and banners scam perpetrated by a Quebec Liberal party arm that was infected with culture of fraud and favouritism.

Quebecers were insulted and still unforgiving of the Liberals and Dion has to wear it. Such is the reality of the Liberals in Quebec...and for a while yet obviously. And while all this is not technically not Dion’s doing or fault – as the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada he has to carry that baggage. It is proving to be a heavy load. That past party baggage is not a new phenomenon nor unique to Dion. Harper had to live through the disaster that was Stockwell Day when he took over the Conservative Party and on his way to 24 Sussex Drive. All this is as it should be.

The larger question is what doe this mean for Quebec politics and how does that impact Canada? Quebec is no longer a fight between Liberal federalists and Bloc Separatists. Quebec’s feelings and political aspirations are much more unclear, uncertain and consequential for Canada since yesterday. Is the Quebec-Canada Cold War over? If so what political relationship within Quebec and between Quebec and Canada fills the vacuum? Is the Rest of Canada ready to deal with the Harper declaration of the Quebec Nation as a reality? Is Mr Harper the new voice for Quebec aspirations or just a means to an end in Quebec – that end being power or at least access to it?

Will Harper “play” Quebec or will Quebec “play” Harper for power and which “player” wins in such a power-game? What happens to the Harper’s western political base in either event? Wasn’t this the kind of Quebec Problem that Mulroney dealt with in his efforts around Charlottetown and Meech Lake? Wasn’t all of that the stuff that lead to the formation of the Reform Party in the first place? Interesting time ahead – interesting times indeed.

In summary – here is how I saw last nights by-elections. Duceppe had some cold water poured on his Quebec sovereigntist torch last night. Dion’s Quebec torch was all but blown out last night by winds of change in those three by-elections. Both of these parties and their leaders were sent strong and angry messages by the Quebec people last night.

Layton has found a small candle in the Quebec winds of change and will have to tend it carefully if he is to keep it lit. One candle does not make a torch…but it can light one.

And as for Mr. Harper, well he was seen as the new and emerging de facto torch carrier for Quebec’s national aspirations. Last night Harper was handed the Quebec Nation’s torch and we shall see how high and well he carries it…or if it ends up burning him and his political carrier in the process.

Bon chance Prime Minister Harper as you move to bring Quebec into nationhood and lead the rest of Canada into a better understanding and an abiding acceptance those unique francophone aspirations. The eyes of an uncertain and a hesitant nation(s) are all upon you.