Stephen Harper celebrated St-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec last weekend as part of a new campaign to woo Quebecers. But there is little to suggest that voters in the province are susceptible to the Prime Minister’s charms.
Polls released over the past few weeks have put the Conservatives somewhere around 16 per cent support in the province, tied with the Liberals but well behind the Bloc Québécois (22 per cent) and the New Democrats (42 per cent). In fact, the Tories have been stuck at or below 20 per cent in Quebec since the October 2008 federal election. The coalition crisis, when the Liberals were said to be in bed with “socialists and separatists”, put the final nail in the Conservative coffin in Quebec and the party has yet to recover.
Satisfaction with Harper’s Conservative government registered only 23 per cent in a recent Léger poll, lower even than the 26 per cent of Quebecers who said they were satisfied with Jean Charest’s unpopular premiership.
If Harper intends to woo Quebecers back into the Conservative tent (the party won 25 per cent of the vote and 10 seats in 2006), he has a lot of work to do. If an election were held today, he would be lucky to keep the five MPs he has in the province.
However, even these MPs are a mixed blessing. With so little representation, the five Conservative standard bearers in Quebec are given far more clout in the government than they would if they were from any other province. None are strong performers. Only Maxime Bernier has some appeal, and that‘s because of his willingness to speak out in defense of bilingualism in opposition to his colleagues. While that might make him more popular in Quebec, it is unlikely to make him many friends in the tightly controlled Conservative caucus.
During his most recent trip to the province, Harper highlighted some of his government’s achievements for Quebec, including a toothless seat at UNESCO and the province’s nation status – both dating before the 2008 federal election. It is a rather thin record when Quebecers are more likely to remember the government’s refusal to hand over data from the long-gun registry to the province, a simple gesture that could have won the Conservatives praise at little political cost. And the hope that their message of economic stability and prosperity will make inroads is mere wishful thinking in a province where relatively minor cuts to culture programs scuttled their 2008 election campaign.
Further complicating matters for the Conservatives is that they have no natural ally in the province. There is no political benefit for Jean Charest to be seen cozying up to the Prime Minister. François Legault’s CAQ is more centrist and nationalist than its ADQ predecessor, making it a tough fit as well. And the nascent but unaffiliated Conservative Party of Quebec, led by former Tory MP Luc Harvey, has the potential to embarrass the federal organization.
The obstacles that lie before the Conservatives in Quebec (some of them self-imposed) appear insurmountable. Quebecers took a chance on Stephen Harper in 2006 but have since written him off, as they have perceived the Conservative Party to have written-off their province. Nothing short of a new leader and a change of direction has a decent shot of wooing Quebecers into the Tory fold.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.