The Harper game plan

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If you want to continue the fight between federalists, and sovereignists, vote for the Liberals or the Bloc. If you prefer economic prosperity, choose the Conservatives. This is the message being road-tested by Stephen Harper in Quebec, as he gets ready for a likely fall election.

Sometimes it is enough to know one thing âe¦ and be successful. Brian Mulroney, for example, knew that the Conservative Party could never form a stable majority government without substantial support in Quebec. His success in Quebec carried him to a massive victory in 1984, and a comfortable majority in 1988.

Stephen Harper has learned the same lesson. His success in winning ten seats in the Quebec City area was the surprise of the 2006 election. Since then he has produced the "Quebec is a nation" resolution voted by the House of Commons, and spoken about scrapping the federal spending power, long one of the traditional demands of Quebec premiers.

Harper opens every press conference speaking in French, and in the House of Commons responds to questions in French, in French. He gets generous French language media coverage as a result.

In Quebec, he has built ties to both the governing Liberal Party, and the Official Opposition ADQ, and can count on the support of both in the next federal campaign.

Meanwhile prospects for the Conservatives main rivals are bleak. The Federal Liberals have failed to recover from the effects of the sponsorship scandal, and the Bloc are looking for a new message now that the PQ has set aside plans for holding a third referendum on sovereignty. Stéphane Dion presides over a deeply divided Quebec wing of his party. After his faint-hearted attempt to move to the Quebec scene as PQ leader failed, only hours after it was launched, Gilles Duceppe has lost considerable credibility in his home province. While Duceppe can at least count on his provincial sovereignist allies to campaign hard for his party, Dion has no provincial troops he can call upon for help.

The continuation of the shooting war in Kandahar province should have hurt Harper and his Conservatives in Quebec, but it was taken off the table as an issue when the Liberals agreed to support the prime minister in a compromise resolution on Afghanistan. In Quebec, the Liberal stand down on the war has brought benefits to the NDP and the Bloc in Montreal, and in French Quebec generally, where the NDP now leads the Liberals in public support.

Where Harper remains vulnerable is on the economy. His message of using federal surpluses in a balanced way through tax cuts (50 per cent), debt re-payment (25 per cent), and new spending initiatives (25 per cent) is hardly news, it is what Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin used to say. What people want to know is what can be done to reverse the slump in manufacturing, the disaster in forestry, pulp, and paper, and the drop in the American tourist trade?

Should Harper respond with the standard neo-liberal ideology, his party is unlikely to excite much interest in the upcoming campaign. However, if he comes up with a recession proofing package for voters in suburban, rural, and resources areas of Quebec (and Ontario) watch out.

Harper was comfortable in 2006 campaigning around his five specific promises. If he promises to support people facing harder times, and comes up with an economic stimulus package that makes sense, he will be well placed to make substantial gain in Quebec in the next election.

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