The Quebec by-elections produced the result Stephen Harper was looking for: voters switched from the Bloc Québecois towards the Parti Conservateur, from one shade of blue to another. The prime minister will be tempted to engineer a late November election, looking to profit from larger than expected Quebec strength, and win himself (gulp) a majority government.

In Roberval-Lac Saint Jean, the mayor of Roberval reclaimed for the Conservatives a seat they used to hold under Brian Mulroney (1984-1993), but that had been a Bloc stronghold for the last 14 years. Denis Labelle, a future minister won 60 per cent of the vote, compared to about 10 per cent for the Liberal (a local Chamber of Commerce president), and no more than 27 per cent for the Bloc candidate (a trade unionist). This was the by-election with the most significant voter turnout, 47 per cent.

This resource and agricultural riding is hurting big time, and was vulnerable to the appeal of sending a government member to Ottawa. Unfortunately for the electors, only an industrial strategy, planned economy approach holds any promise for this region, and the Conservatives have no intention of going down that road.

In Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, the Bloc held on in the face of a Conservative surge. Ã^ve-Mary Thaï Thi Lache, parliamentary assistant to a very popular and effective retiring Bloc M.P. Yvon Loubier, and herself very well known in the riding she has lived in since arriving at the age of two (as an adopted child) won by less than five percentage points, against a second rate Conservative, who was not even allowed by Ottawa to participate in the candidate debates. The Liberal and NDP finished close together with less than 10 per cent each.

This is the riding that sent Conservative Claude Wagner to Ottawa when Trudeau was prime minister, and elected another Conservative Andrée Champagne under Mulroney. But, it also is the centre of support for supply-managed agriculture; Yvon Loubier was a former chief economist for the militant agricultural union, the UPA. Tory free market agriculture makes no sense in this riding, which is why their candidate was gagged.

The huge win for Thomas Mulcair, the NDP, and Jack Layton in Outremont was largely at the expense of the Bloc. The NDP with a popular candidate rose at least 30 per cent points in the popular vote (from 18 to 48) while the Bloc lost about 20 per cent points (from 29 to 10). The Liberal vote was down from 35 per cent to 28 per cent, with a voter turnout of only 36 per cent.

This part of urban Quebec wants nothing to do with the Conservatives who won less than 20 per cent of the vote.

The media spin was all about the leadership of Stéphane Dion being put into question with the defeat of his hand-picked candidate, the intelligent but not politically smart, Jocelyn Coulon. In fact the Outremont story is about the widespread support for the NDP anti-war policy of withdrawal of combat troops from Southern Afghanistan.

The Liberals were weak in Outremont, but were not even contenders in the other two ridings, which should be ominous news for whoever happens to be leading the party.

The Liberals have yet to understand why they are nowhere in Quebec outside the Anglophone ridings, though the story is not that hard to understand. The gutting of unemployment insurance (renamed employment insurance, or E.I., which fooled nobody) by Paul Martin and the Chrétien government in 1995 has helped re-elect the Bloc ever since, and almost won the sovereignists their referendum.

Throughout Francophone Quebec, the Liberals are known to have reduced the deficit by cutting E.I. benefits, and increasing the number of contributors with no chance of ever collecting benefits. That legacy kept the Bloc in business. Then the Liberals developed their sponsorship programme—largely in a silly attempt to offset the damage they had done by withdrawing insurance benefits bought and paid for by workers—and the resulting scandal re-elected the Bloc twice more.

Amazingly, the Liberals still campaign as if their record of cutting transfers to individuals and provinces for education, health, and social benefits, while reducing taxes to business, was a positive recommendation to the same Quebec voters who have been rejecting them for years.

The Bloc is increasingly out of touch with much of the province. An analysis of their performance in the 2006 election highlighted the disparaging treatment of Stephen Harper as a “cowboy” by Bloc operatives, when the word cowboy has a positive resonance in much of Quebec, home to rodeos, country music festivals, and cowboy dress.

The NDP have policies on their books to restore unemployment insurance, develop industrial strategies, and protect supply management in agriculture. Now is the time to go on the offensive in Quebec against the Harperites, who have no policies to offer Quebecers, other than free market religion. There is no good reason for Quebec voters to prefer one shade of blue to another.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...