The distinct society becomes Canada's political test market

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 11 14:35:13 UTC 2006

The distinct society becomes Canada's political test market

Sep. 10, 2006. 01:00 AM

If politics was a corporate product, this weekend's events in Quebec City
could be called an example of local test-marketing. In the same way
marketers pick "typical" communities to try out the potential success of a
product, so Liberals and New Democrats have chosen Quebec this weekend as
the place to shop some politics to fight the Conservatives and each other.
For the NDP, it's a well-attended convention of more than 1,500 people,
winding up in Quebec City today and billed as an attempt to portray the
New Democrats as the clearest, most progressive alternative to the

For the Liberals, it's the third formal debate among the 10 leadership
contenders, taking place in Quebec City this afternoon. For both parties,
the clear hope is that Quebec will be a trend-setter in a larger, national
move away from the Conservatives after Canadians have had fewer than nine
months of seeing the Tories in action. Historically, it shows just how far
the country has come. Politicians aren't arguing any more over whether the
province is distinct they're more intrigued now with how Quebec's distinct
political values and attitudes can translate across the country.

In fact, in the past couple of tumultuous years in federal politics,
Quebec and Quebecers have emerged as a kind of early-warning detection
system for politicians in Ottawa. Trouble for the federal Liberals started
here with ethical scandals over the federal advertising and sponsorship
program. The makings of the Conservative minority began here when Stephen
Harper started to be taken seriously as a potential prime minister, late
in the 2005 portion of the election campaign.

The first vacancy in the still-new House of Commons has come,
unfortunately, in Quebec, with the tragic, fatal car accident of Bloc
Qubcois MP Benoit Sauvageau. Harper has to decide whether to soon call a
by-election in Repentigny or gamble that the Commons will fall within the
year he has to fill the seat. And it's almost forgotten now, too, in the
ongoing melodrama, but Harper's early skirmishes with the national media
were first seized upon mainly by French-language reporters. There was one
news conference back in spring in which nearly every French-language
reporter pointedly asked Harper why he was trying to control the media.

Poetically appropriate, perhaps, that a prime minister who has made it a
policy to speak French first in his public remarks should find that Quebec
leads the way in political trends that could affect his fortunes. Harper,
in a way, has made it easy for his opponents to make their pitch to
Quebec, here in the last days of summer as the Commons prepares to
reconvene a week from tomorrow. Almost every one of his policy moves this
summer has shown Harper to be out of step with prevailing political
opinion in Quebec. At least two polls in recent weeks have shown the
Tories taking a nine-point hit in popularity in the province, largely
because of opposition to his foreign-policy actions.

New Democrats virtually organized their convention agenda and marquee
speakers around the broad policy areas where Harper's policies and Quebec
opinion are increasingly at odds: the war in Afghanistan; climate change;
the Israeli-Lebanese conflict in the Middle East; Canada's role in
fighting AIDS in Africa; and, maybe most important, the increasingly
forceful Harper attachment to the United States. Spectators to today's
Liberal leadership debate in Quebec City can expect to hear the 10
candidates hammering away at pretty much the same themes. Candidates Bob
Rae and Michael Ignatieff, in fact, went to do a little test-marketing
themselves in Montreal on Friday, appearing at the same University of
Montreal building to give noon speeches to two different audiences.

Like the New Democrats, Rae and Ignatieff highlighted where Harper stands
to lose the hearts, and inevitably the votes, they hope, of Quebecers. "I
believe Stephen Harper doesn't understand or reflect the view of Quebec on
a whole range of questions: the environment, same-sex marriage, gun
control, early childhood learning," Rae told the students. "Conservatives
are outside the common sense of ordinary Quebecers,"  Ignatieff said. Rae
is a former New Democratic premier of Ontario. That background could be
significant in the shifting political tides this fall and winter.

Perhaps predictably, neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats spend much
time talking about each other as they're doing their test-marketing this
weekend in Quebec. Liberal observers are on hand at the NDP convention,
but none seems to be overly worried that the New Democrats are any closer
to gaining even one seat in the province. Meanwhile, the New Democrats
mainly referred to the Liberals in the past tense at their convention,
seemingly not to take them seriously while the Grits are still leaderless.

There was one exception, though. In his speech to open the convention
Friday night, special United Nations ambassador and former Ontario NDP
leader Stephen Lewis spoke of his stroll through the congress-centre halls
on arriving in Quebec City. One man he encountered told Lewis: "I'm glad
you're still with us." Lewis said he was shocked. Of course, he was still
a social democrat he was the son of a former federal NDP leader, father in
a family of social-democratic activists. He could never be "flexible" with
his deep, partisan roots.

And then Lewis paused. "I'm not Bob Rae," he said, and the crowd wildly
cheered. It was a brief glimpse into the reality that while Liberals and
New Democrats are here in Quebec this weekend to test-market their
anti-Conservative pitch, they are also here to lay the groundwork in a
more intense battle against each other this fall.


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