Liberals remain risk-free at their own peril

Chantal Hebert
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The ground has shifted in Quebec since Montreal was last host to a federal Liberal brainstorming session four years ago.
Back in the days when Michael Ignatieff presided over a so-called thinkers' conference, a federalist party was in power provincially and the Parti Québécois - under Pauline Marois - was bleeding support left and right.

Now Premier Marois is on the verge of calling a snap election and it looks like the governing majority she covets will be hers to lose in an April vote.

A CROP poll published by La Presse this week pegged PQ support among francophone voters at 47 per cent.

It is a rare federalist that relishes the prospect of a sovereigntist majority government in Quebec. But Justin Trudeau's troops could do worse than look for solace and inspiration in the PQ's comeback.

Like the Liberals after Jean Chrétien retired, PQ fortunes went from bad to worse after premier Lucien Bouchard resigned in 2001.

Under Bernard Landry the party lost power and under successor AndrÈ Boisclair, it slipped to third place in the national assembly. By the time Marois took over, the PQ looked like a spent force.

To bring it back to pre-eminence Marois had to adapt her strategy to a multi-party battlefield.

A repeat of the classic duels between federalist and sovereigntists of the past was simply not on.

To give the PQ an edge she also had to take some policy risks. The controversial secularism charter is a by-product of the more competitive Quebec dynamics.

This week's CROP poll suggests that Trudeau's Liberals will similarly have to adapt to new battle conditions. It gives the Liberals a four-point lead on the NDP provincewide but that's a six-point drop from January. The party also suffers from an over-concentration of support in a handful of Montreal ridings.

In the province outside Montreal - where most seats are - the NDP actually enjoys a five-point lead. To overcome that Trudeau's Quebec team desperately needs new blood and some organizational muscle.

When Denis Coderre jumped in the Montreal municipal arena last year, the party lost its most energetic Quebec organizer. (As an aside, this week Coderre is basking in the glow of positive reviews of his first hundred days as mayor - making it job one for his former party to stay in his good books.)

There is an ongoing rush for nominations in the safe Liberal seats of Montreal island but the picture is different in the rest of the province. One of the upsides of a Liberal defeat provincially this spring could be an opportunity to poach some of Philippe Couillard's talent.

The last time the Liberal Party of Canada held a conference in Montreal, a number of challenging policy ideas were put forward. Most of them subsequently sank without a trace.

If the party sticks to its risk-averse instincts this weekend it will again be at its own peril.

Quebec MNAs spent part of this week scrambling to beat a ticking election clock to pass into law a new end-of-life regimen that would make doctor-assisted suicide available on demand to terminally ill patients. The Supreme Court will also revisit the issue before the next federal election.

This weekend two priority resolutions would have Trudeau jump in front of that parade.

The party will also be asked to endorse a basic annual income policy. That would signal a shift away from the Liberal's macro-approach to the country's social safety net.

Finally since 1980 the Liberals have won only one election - albeit only with a minority of seats - against a united Conservative party. And that was before the NDP took Quebec by storm. At the same time neither party is keen to merge with the other.

The NDP has long championed proportional representation and the Liberals took a step in the direction of a preferential ballot two years ago.

This weekend, a resolution committing a future Liberal government to explore all electoral reform options over its first year in office will be put to the convention.

Polls show that Liberal fortunes have improved since Trudeau became leader but the big picture of a fractured opposition landscape remains unchanged.

 

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.

Organizations: PQ, NDP, La Presse Liberal Party of Canada Supreme Court

Geographic location: Quebec, Montreal

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