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Has Harper Hurt National Unity?

Poised to vote, Quebeckers are stinging from PM's attacks on the Bloc.

By Rob Annandale 5 Dec 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Rob Annandale is a frequent contributor to The Tyee and The Hook blog.

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Poor little orphan?

[Editor's note: Updating this article, which was posted yesterday evening: The latest polling of Quebec voters, released Friday, Dec. 5., shows the Parti Quebecois at 29 per cent, the Liberals at 45 per cent., and the Action Democratique du Quebec at 15 per cent support.]

After years of courting Quebec voters in the hopes of winning that elusive parliamentary majority, Stephen Harper made it clear this week he was done playing nice with la belle province.

"This deal that the leader of the Liberal party has made with the separatists is a betrayal of the voters of this country, a betrayal of the best interests of our economy, a betrayal of the best interests of our country and we will fight it with every means we have," Harper said in just one of many Conservative attacks on the Bloc Québécois during question period.

The consequences of his Jekyll and Hyde act may start to become clear in Quebec as early as Monday's provincial election, in which Jean Charest looked poised to upgrade his Liberal Party's minority to a majority before all the madness started. In the absence (as of Thursday) of new province-wide polling since the Nov. 25 leaders' debate, it's unclear where things stand now.

Université de Montréal political scientist Henry Milner believes the Governor General's decision to allow the House of Commons to shut down early should allow cooler heads to prevail and reduces the chances of emotion-driven events that could influence Monday's election.

But he admits that's just a guess and the long-term future of national unity is even more unsure.

Lighting fires

If there needs to be a time out, Milner says, the prime minister and his baffling attacks on "the separatists" bear much of the blame.

"I don't see what he gained except getting people angry," he said. "The only rational thing I can think of is maybe it helped him go to the Governor General and say, look, we have to have a cooling off period because look how angry people are. It's like, poor me, I'm an orphan after I've killed my parents."

Milner hopes for the country's sake that the debate will now refocus on the real issue of stimulus programs and not drag out the events of the past week until the next possible parliamentary vote in late January.

"If [the Bloc's support of the coalition] is still a major issue, then the long term implications could be very strong and you should probably talk to a psychologist rather than a political scientist," Milner said. "Because listening to people on the radio, it was really emotional."

In any case, the events of the last few days suggest Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a Quebec native whose financial statement kicked off the political/constitutional/national unity chain of events, may have overstated things when he told a reporter earlier this year "the whole Quebec secession issue is gone."

The number of those who say they would vote for an independent Quebec in a referendum now stands at 38 per cent, according to CROP vice-president Claude Gauthier. Or at least that was the finding of a poll his company conducted in the early days of the provincial campaign, when Canadian politics still made sense. That's the same share of the popular vote as Flaherty's party obtained nationally in October's federal election.

'There could be a rebirth'

"Dormant" is a better word than "gone," according to Université de Sherbrooke political scientist Jean-Herman Guay, because the sovereigntist movement can always bounce back.

"There's no doubt that if there are acts out West or in Ontario that appear or are presented to Quebeckers as a rejection of what they are, there could be a rebirth," he said. "So it's very delicate."

Concerning the tone of the Conservatives over recent days, Guay believes the hyperbole and exaggerations so common in political speeches can lead to bad reactions and the sovereigntist movement has often fed off a sense of threat.

"As soon as the threat reappears, the defensive mechanism kicks into gear and the sovereigntist movement comes out on top," according to Guay. "But is that what's going to happen this time? It's too early to say."

You are what you vote

As a rule though, Guay thinks a trigger such as the patriation of the Constitution, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord or the sponsorship scandal is necessary for a major shift in public opinion.

Milner agreed but still questioned the wisdom of calling the coalition's agreement with a party that won two thirds of Quebec's seats a "deal with the devil."

"Indirectly you're saying that half the French Canadians in Quebec are devil-worshippers. It's not something that goes over well," he said, adding that the prime minister's "incendiary" comments suggest he may have written Quebec off.

The feeling, at least is some corners, appears to be mutual.

Parti Québecois (PQ) Leader Pauline Marois has taken flack for going soft on sovereignty but as soon as Harper went after "the separatists" in the House, Marois fired up talk of leaving a dysfunctional country that doesn't respect Quebec.

She, along with other sovereigntist heavyweights such as Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry, also provided the Conservatives with ammunition by endorsing the proposed coalition government, which a CROP poll suggests 76 per cent of Quebeckers support.

She slammed Charest's neutrality in the matter and came under fire from the Action Démocratique du Québec's (ADQ) Mario Dumont for her lack of judgment. But in spite of Dumont's harsh words, Marois would not rule out forming a coalition with the ADQ should the Liberals fail to win a majority.

Prediction time

CROP's Gauthier says it's too late now for the nasty rhetoric in Ottawa to have a major impact on Monday's vote and any potential fallout is likely to become clear only in the longer term.

"If things continue to escalate and Quebeckers see more and more that the rest of Canada is opposed to the coalition government because of the Bloc's support, then there could well be a reaction like after Meech Lake," he said, referring to a time in the early 1990s that saw support for independence climb above 60 per cent.

"The situation that's going on right now has just started," said Gauthier. "People haven't had time to think and take it all in yet."

Chaos as friend?

Gauthier believes Charest, with his constant campaign message that Quebec needs the stability of a majority government to weather tough economic times, is likely to benefit from the chaos in Ottawa over the short term.

Milner agrees that Charest should be in good shape, with a caveat. The Ottawa crisis has everyone in Quebec talking about politics -- albeit not of the provincial variety -- and if this new enthusiasm translates into big numbers at the polls on Monday, the Liberals could be in for a disappointment.

People who vote Liberal tend to vote no matter what, according to Milner. Historically, a high turnout has meant a PQ government but that was before the rise of the ADQ, currently the Opposition but languishing in third in the latest polls.

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