By Chantal HébertNational Columnist


Ipsos pollster John Wright thinks the Liberals, the Conservatives and the NDP may all be wasting their time in Quebec these days. Given the Bloc Québécois’s enduring dominance of the province, he wonders why any of the other parties should bother with Quebec.

A short answer might be that 62 per cent of Quebecers voted for parties other than the Bloc in the last federal election, up from 58 per cent in 2006.

Given the way pollsters and columnists routinely talk about the Bloc as if it owned Quebec, one might be forgiven for believing that the sovereignist party alone commands an audience in the province.

In fact, the party has not carried a majority of the popular vote in any of the six campaigns it has fought over its 20-year existence.

The Bloc came close in 2004 — at the beginning of the sponsorship scandal. But since then its share of the popular vote has dropped 10 points. Far from wasting their time, the national parties have been making inroads in Quebec.

They actually start from a pretty solid base. The Quebecers who do not support the Bloc are massively federalist. A substantial majority of them would rather stay home than give Gilles Duceppe their support. Thousands did just that at the time of the sponsorship inquiry.

For the record, the Quebec vote pattern matches the current poll standing of federalism (60 per cent) versus sovereignty (40 per cent).

Michael Ignatieff’s 14 Quebec MPs make up the second-largest provincial group in his caucus after Ontario. That number may not look like much when it is stacked up against Quebec’s 75-seat total but it is more than the sum of the ridings of any Atlantic province.

Wright notes that Harper has shifted his attention to Ontario since the last election and that is true enough. But that does not mean the prime minister can afford to throw his 11 Quebec seats out the window.

Even when the next redistribution adds more seats in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, a party starting at 0 for 75 seats in Quebec could be hard-pressed to secure a majority.

And then, if the Liberals, for one, were ever seriously going to think about giving up on Quebec, they would — in the same spirit — have to question whether to continue to put resources in any province west of Ontario.

In 2008, the first-place Conservatives won a bigger share of the popular vote in Manitoba (48.9 per cent), Saskatchewan (54 per cent), Alberta (65 per cent), and British Columbia (44.5 per cent) than the Bloc (38 per cent) did in Quebec.

The Liberals on the other hand earned 24 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec against only 19 per cent in Manitoba and British Columbia, 15 per cent in Saskatchewan and a measly 11 per cent in Alberta.

When all is said and done, the Liberals actually face a less steep electoral hill in Quebec than anywhere in Western Canada.

It has been a few decades since the Liberals have done well in Alberta and Saskatchewan but only ten years ago that Jean Chrétien won 44 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec, finishing the 2000 campaign five points ahead of the Bloc.

At the time, the sum of the scores of the NDP and the divided Conservatives in Quebec added up to less than 15 per cent of the total. Since then support for both — but in particular the NDP — has increased substantially.

At a time when a clear majority of Quebecers say they prefer federalism over sovereignty, the Bloc continues to win two out of three Quebec seats because the federalist vote — even as it increases — is splitting three ways.

And if that sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same dynamics that allow the Conservatives to win power even if more than six out of ten voters cast their ballots against them.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.–hebert-quebec-is-rich-turf-for-national-parties