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Harper And Quebec: How Jean Charest And The Parti Quebecois Implosion Could Spell Trouble For The Tories

Jean Charest: the next thorn in Harper’s side?

Beginning today, the Conservatives will toast their election victory at their national convention, held a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill.

But amid the celebration, storm clouds could be gathering on the opposite bank of the Ottawa River.

Despite having handily won his majority government without Quebec, Stephen Harper’s first mandate may be a turbulent one thanks to la belle province and its beleaguered Liberal premier.

A wily politician who rarely fails to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, Jean Charest is in an ideal position to rebuild his battered image at the expense of the Prime Minister.

Charest has already flexed his muscle. Even before the Tories announced $2.2-billion in compensation for Quebec's HST in this week's federal budget, the premier had voiced his opposition to two measures proposed by Ottawa. Through his Intergovernmental affairs minister Pierre Moreau, Charest has made it clear that Quebec would launch a Supreme Court challenge any unilateral reform of the Senate by the Harper Conservatives.

Mr. Moreau has also expressed the provincial government’s disapproval of a plan to add new seats in the House of Commons for Ontario, B.C., and Alberta.

Charest is no stranger to using Quebec nationalism to bolster his sagging poll numbers, which according to two recent polls stand somewhere between 27 and 30 per cent. Most recently, the Liberal government stipulated that the 50-per-cent-plus-one rule would apply to any future referendum on Quebec sovereignty and that, contrary to the federal Clarity Act, the decision would be made in the province, not in Ottawa.

In 2009, Charest fiercely criticized the federal government’s environmental policies at Copenhagen. Last year, he was one of Quebec’s most vocal defenders in the wake of a controversial Maclean’s piece on corruption in the province.

But the situation in Ottawa and Quebec City has opened a new window of opportunity for Charest to take on the mantle of Quebec’s defender.

In Ottawa, the disastrous election result for the Bloc Québécois has removed the party and its once popular leader as a voice for Quebec in the House of Commons. With Jack Layton’s NDP delicately trying to serve the often contradictory interests of Quebec and the rest of Canada, there is a leadership vacuum that Charest can fill.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, the Parti Québécois has been rocked by the resignation of several MNAs, dealing a critical blow to party leader Pauline Marois amid complaints about her leadership style and her position on the construction of a new arena in Quebec City. Three of the resigning MNAs are heavyweights in the party who come from the more stridently sovereigntist wing of the PQ.

Stephen Harper’s own weakness in the province also gives Charest an opportunity to improve his numbers at the expense of the federal leader. The Conservative caucus was cut by half and its vote total dropped to under 17 per cent in Quebec in the May election. There is very little representation from Quebec at the cabinet table and inside the party itself, there is discontent emanating from the province’s membership.

Unsuccessful Tory candidates in Quebec have said that they felt abandoned by the party and left to their own devices during the campaign. There is also opposition to proposed changes to the party’s constitution, a topic to be debated at this weekend’s convention, which would have the effect of lessening the province’s weight in making internal party decisions.

Though Quebec’s next provincial election doesn’t have to take place until 2013, Charest has called a snap vote in the past and the prospect of catching the Parti Québécois at its most vulnerable may be too much to resist by 2012.

Banging the nationalist drum at a moment when no strong sovereigntist voice exists in either Ottawa or Quebec City and throwing up obstacles to a federal government unpopular in the province may be a winning strategy for Jean Charest. It could also cause more than a few headaches for Stephen Harper.

Éric Grenier is author of, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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