There's a good chance the two minority governments will last

Opposition parties in Ottawa and Quebec City are in no mood to go to the polls

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, March 3, 2008

There are minority governments in both Ottawa and Quebec City and, quite suddenly, both of them look increasingly likely to survive into 2009.

In Ottawa, the Liberals are passing on the opportunity to defeat the Harper government on the budget vote this week. In Quebec, with Jean Charest rebounding strongly in the polls, neither Pauline Marois nor Mario Dumont should be in a rush to precipitate a spring election over his budget.

For the federal Liberals, there will be other opportunities to offer motions amounting to non-confidence during opposition days, but they shouldn't count on Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois to support them. Duceppe was, and is, ready to defeat the Conservatives on the budget or Afghanistan at the end of this month, but Duceppe won't be doing any favours for Stéphane Dion, whom he doesn't like doing business with anyway.

In Quebec City, the budget is normally the only confidence occasion of the year, and both Marois and Dumont would have noted last week's authoritative CROP poll, which showed the Liberals back in first place at 35 per cent, the Parti Québécois a solid second at 32 per cent, with Dumont's Action démocratique sliding all the way to 21 per cent.

This is a complete reversal of fortune from only six months ago, when Dumont was riding high, when Marois's return to the legislature as PQ leader was much-anticipated, and when Charest's future in politics was deemed to be behind him.

But then Charest lost 25 pounds and got the look back in his eye, started playing to Liberal strengths on the economy and a diverse society, got his mind around running a minority House, and brought in professionals to run his office and the party.

The transformation in Charest's performance and his standing with the voters is startling. Meanwhile, Dumont has squandered an opportunity in the fall session of the legislature to demonstrate that he and his ADQ constitute a government-in-waiting. And Marois has proven Charest's point that he wanted a real rather an imagined opponent in the House.

Marois will undoubtedly be tempted to oppose the provincial budget, if only to put the squeeze on Dumont to abstain or stay out of the House, as the PQ was forced to do last June. She would undoubtedly enjoy returning the favour, but Dumont can't be suicidal. At 21 per cent, with no indication that he's bottomed yet, he's not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, Charest's anglophone and allophone voters are returning to the Liberal fold, and the wretched reasonable accommodation debate, to be re-launched with this month's scheduled release of the Bouchard-Taylor report, will keep them there. This frees Charest to focus on rebuilding with francophone voters, and in the CROP the Liberals had returned to second place with that crucial demographic, at 26 per cent, up from a rock-bottom 15 per cent last summer. The satisfaction rate with the Charest government has bounced back to 50 per cent, from the lows 30s six months ago.

Charest has a leadership review to get past at this month's Liberal policy convention, but that's the only hurdle standing between him and survival into next year. By then, he will have been premier for six years, and his prospects of becoming the first three-term premier since Maurice Duplessis might be enough for him to make, rather than becoming, history.

In Ottawa, Duceppe and Dion would have also noted the federal side of the CROP poll, which put the Bloc at 33 per cent, the Conservatives at 27 per cent and the Liberals at 21 per cent.

This is not a number to tempt Duceppe into an election, either. The Bloc vote is soft, down from 36 per cent in the previous CROP, while the Conservatives have stabilized after losing four points a month earlier. If the Bloc were to give up another three points to the Conservatives, Harper would achieve the breakthrough he seeks in the key 50-seat battleground of the island of Montreal.

Dion's problems here are huge. The Liberals' vote is concentrated in Montreal, where they lead in their English-speaking and ethnic strongholds, but the party virtually disappears in the rest of the province. In the key Quebec City region, the Conservatives actually dominate the Bloc by a 2-1 margin, while the Liberals hardly record a pulse.

There's more at play here than the Conservatives and Liberals trading places as the competitive federalist party. There's accumulated voter fatigue with the Liberal brand, and clearly no preference for Dion as a favourite son.

It will take more than a new pair of glasses to fix that.

 
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