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Today's Big Story

Quebec Three-way Tight Till the End

Province's first minority in 100 years predicted.

By Richard Warnica 26 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Today is the last of eight crazy days in Canadian politics.

A week ago, Stephen Harper dropped his second budget as prime minister. It was a document that, as The Tyee's Laura Drake predicted, left B.C. in the cold. Environmentalists, housing advocates and even Newfoundlanders were unhappy with what they saw.

But the above groups were hardly Harper's target market. This budget was about something else, something a little more...belle. In a word: Quebec.

The Tories offered hundreds of millions of dollars in new transfer payments to la belle province in the budget. The spending was done with two related goals: 1) Add Quebec nationalists to Harper's conservative coalition, allowing him to win a majority government; 2) Prove to said nationalists that Jean Charest's Quebec Liberals can bring home the federal bacon, shoring them up before today's provincial vote.

Whether or not Harper succeeded in the first goal, we won't know for a while, as his government now appears temporarily safe. As for the second, well, stay tuned.

When the budget first dropped, McGill University political scientist Eric Belanger predicted that it would not be enough to save Charest, who ran, by all accounts, a lacklustre campaign. However, by yesterday, blogger cum number-cruncher Gregory Morrow saw a slim Liberal minority government in the polls.

Charest, who was elected in 2003, was record-breakingly unpopular at one point in his mandate. He failed in attempts to both trim spending and cut taxes, making enemies on both the right and left of the electorate. Sovereigntists, too, are no fans of the one-time federal party leader. Given all that, just holding on to his job is some kind of accomplishment, if not a great one.

Charest's plan going into this election was simple: monger fear. His Parti Québécois opponent, André Boisclair, was bound by a party platform that promised another referendum on separation if elected, something most Quebecers told pollsters they didn't want. Charest's top plan was to be the guy who wasn't going.

Two things happened to derail that plan.

The first and most serious was Mario Dumont and the Action Démocratique du Québec. Dumont, a former Young Liberal and one-time sovereignty supporter, was written off as a spent force at the start of this campaign. Having founded his party more than a decade ago and with still just four seats in the National Assembly, the small-government populist was expected to fade away like other fringe politicians of the past.

Instead, Dumont, who has been described as Quebec's answer to Preston Manning, surged. His middle-ground take on the national question (he called himself an autonomist on the campaign trail) found traction with voters tired of one-issue politics. His promise to abolish school boards and slash welfare rolls found support in the regions outside Montreal, where anti-metropolitan sentiment has long simmered. In Quebec city, home to most provincial bureaucrats, Dumont won support and could pick up more than 10 seats by playing off resentment of the perceived cushy lives of pencil pushers. He even undercut Charest on university tuition, an issue that has long dogged the premier, by promising a smaller increase than the already modest one proposed by the Liberals.

No matter if Boisclair or Charest walks away with the minority tonight, it will probably be Dumont holding the balance of power. What that means for Quebec, and for the rest of Canada, remains to be seen. But here's one prediction: a Harper majority in Ottawa plus Dumont power in Quebec will eventually mean a smaller, less active federal government. When I spoke to a Dumont spokesperson Sunday he was clear: we don't need more powers, we just need the federal government to butt out of the ones we have, namely education and health care. And, big spending budget aside (which really wasn't all that big spending at all if you look at it through the eyes of Will McMartin), Stephen Harper has advocated small government and provincial autonomy for most of his professional life. So while it's Quebecers who are today deciding what role they want government to play in their lives, it may be all Canadians who eventually live with the answer: namely, a reduced one.  [Tyee]

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