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Subject: Conservative Party focuses on Quebec

Totally Blue Tory
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Date Posted: Sun, Dec 21 2003, 16:01:19 GMT-4

Conservative Party focuses on Quebec


MONTREAL (CP) - Among the many challenges facing the new Conservative Party of Canada, the greatest could be shedding the perception that some of its founding members are anti-Quebec and anti-bilingualism.

While such characterizations prevented the Canadian Alliance, and the Reform party before that, from making inroads in the province, those interested in leading the new party are painting it as a voice for all Canadians.

Alliance Leader Stephen Harper dismissed as "mythology" repeated claims by critics in Quebec that the Alliance has a history of being anti-Quebec and against official bilingualism.

He noted the party narrowly earned more votes in the province than the Tories in the 2000 federal election.

Harper, who is bilingual and widely touted as the front-runner in the leadership race, said this week he will officially kick off his campaign on Jan. 12.

He said the key to the next election will be the new party's ability to create the kind of riding-by-riding organization in the province that eluded the Alliance.

And the key to success is steering clear of a strategy of simply trying to pluck votes out of the hands of the Bloc Quebecois or the Liberals.

"I think all that thinking is wrong," Harper said in an interview.

"I think what we have to do in Quebec is we need to create a conservative party in Quebec. We have to get by the old labels and get by the debate of Quebec versus Canada."

Harper said he believes Canadians have moved beyond the era of former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney, who in the early 1980s persuaded sovereigntists to support him after he promised to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold.

Mulroney's coast-to-coast coalition began crumbling during the bitter constitutional debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Western-based staunch conservatives abandoned the Tories to throw their support behind the upstart Reform party, while Quebec nationalists flocked to the Bloc.

While Harper refused to outline any specific proposals to woo Quebecers at this stage of his leadership bid, he said he does not believe Quebecers want "massive promises of constitutional change."

"The general philosophy we do share is that we want to see Canada built from the bottom up and have a government close to the people."

But many Quebecers have been wary of the Alliance's brand of social conservatism, which is in stark contrast to the strong support in the province for policies such as gay marriage and decriminalization of marijuana.

Jim Prentice, a Calgary lawyer who came second in the Progressive Conservative leadership race last May, is billing himself as a "bridging candidate" who can roll out a welcome mat to Alliance and Tory members.

Prentice, who speaks some French but is not bilingual, recently spent a week in Montreal and plans to return in early January.

He said he wants to emphasize an "agenda of reintegration of Quebec into the Canadian constitutional family."

He said he brings to the leadership race a respect for, and deep understanding of, Quebec and the "distinctiveness" of its culture and language.

Prentice acknowledges the party has work to do to attract the kind of high-calibre candidates who have already come forward in other parts of the country. But he said he expects Quebecers to be drawn to the party once they see its strength elsewhere.

"Quebec is in a period of realignment," said Prentice.

"What is really important about this new party is that it be branded properly as it emerges and that it has a leader who is able to reach out to Quebecers and other Canadians and be seen as the person who reflects their compassion and their tolerance."

A poll published this week suggested the new Conservative Party kept much of the support the Tories and Alliance had individually before their merger earlier this month.

But while 21 per cent of Canadian respondents said they would have voted for the new party - the strongest support of any federal opposition party since the Liberals were elected in 1993 - a regional breakdown indicated support in Quebec was at just five per cent.

Tory Leader Peter MacKay, who has worked to improve his French, says he is "taking a very positive look" at launching his own leadership bid.

He said the Tories' historic roots in Quebec should help revitalize the conservative movement in the province and trigger the "muscle memory" of former supporters who have turned to other options in the last decade.

But he said the new party needs to reach out to disaffected Liberals and the next generation of young soft nationalists who may see the Bloc as a spent force and be ready to embark on their own "beau risque," as Mulroney's initiative was dubbed.

"Quebecers have instinctively understood the need for change when change comes around," said MacKay.

"They recognize the status quo in (Prime Minister) Paul Martin."

MacKay said there is nothing in the Conservative Party's founding principles that could be called anti-Quebec. Accusations the political right is plagued with such sentiment constitute "a lot of misconception done for political mischief," he added.

Like MacKay, Andre Bachand is also pondering his political future - but from outside the realm of the united right following the Quebec-based MP's decision to leave the Tories shortly after the ratification vote.

"The so-called union of the right hasn't taken upon itself to reflect the real nature of our country, which includes Quebec's distinct character and the bilingual character of Canada," Bachand, who had been the only Tory MP in Quebec, wrote earlier this month in an open letter to his constituents in Richmond-Arthabaska.

But both MacKay and Harper say Bachand should have stuck around to work from within the new party to help ensure Quebec is strongly represented in Ottawa.

While Harper may boast that the Alliance garnered more support in Quebec than the Tories in the 2000 federal election, their combined percentage was just 11.8 per cent, compared with 39.9 per cent for the Bloc Quebecois and 44.2 per cent for the Liberals.

Of the 53,315 ballots cast in the Alliance's merger vote earlier this month, 302 were in Quebec. For the Tories, 342 of 2,486 were from Quebecers.

But Prentice, MacKay and Harper all acknowledge the voting formula being used to pick the leader gives the province an importance far beyond its membership numbers.

Candidates collect points for the leadership based on the percentage of support they get from party members in each riding.

For example, if there are only 50 eligible delegates in the Quebec riding of Lac-St-Jean-Saguenay, candidate A gets 50 points if he can get 50 per cent - or 25 of the votes. By contrast, even if candidate B gets 1,000 out of 2,000 votes in the Alberta riding of Medicine Hat, he still gets 50 points.

Harper said he plans to dedicate "a fair amount of time" campaigning in Quebec before the leadership convention March 19-21.

"Quebec can't elect a leader, but Quebec could end up being pivotal or kingmaker in terms of who does win," said Harper.

But even if a candidate were to win the leadership due in large part to the support of Quebec delegates, he would still have a mountain to climb to turn that support into success in a federal election, says one political observer.

"I think the prospects for this new party in Quebec are not good at all right now," said Louis Massicotte, a political science professor at the University of Montreal.

"The Alliance has raised absolutely no interest in Quebec simply because its perspective completely runs counter to every group in Quebec. It's a party that at the very least is considered hostile towards bilingualism, so right there there are not many people interested in that."

The Quebec political scene today is far removed from the early 1980s and Mulroney's beau risque, he added.

Massicotte said he expects the current voting pattern to continue in the next election - with federalists of all stripes lining up behind the Liberals to prevent vote-splitting that would benefit the Bloc.

"If any party will make gains, the Liberals are best-placed to make them."

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