This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 12, 2007
ADQ Leader Dumont Has Momentum in Quebec
A good election campaign always kills at least one myth. I've heard my whole career that Canadians won't tolerate winter campaigns. Yet here's Quebec following the winter federal campaign of 2006 with the winter provincial campaign of 2007, and who's complaining? Nobody is who. A few days ago a bunch of us stood in a parking lot across from a vast open field in Deschaillons-sur-St.-Laurent, near Shawinigan, waiting for Mario Dumont. A DJ piped music through speakers perched in the snow. Four of the spectators had arrived on snowmobiles. Everyone was cheerful. The weather was arctic.
Presently Dumont tumbled out of his bus, his son and two daughters in tow. They traipsed into the corrugated metal building next to the parking lot, which turned out to contain cows, and therefore a photo opportunity. Dumont is 36, taller than he looks on TV, and he has already led his makeshift ACTION DÉMOCRATIQUE DU QUÉBEC party through three elections before this one - plus the 1995 referendum, during which he basically flipped a coin and came up separatist. But he likes to say he listened to the voters that year. These days he is eager to talk about almost anything except Quebec's constitutional future.
There was a weird political-market bubble in Mario Dumont futures in 2002. Voters were sick of the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS and not yet sure Jean CHAREST was fit to lead. Suddenly Dumont's ADQ party led in the polls. Then his support collapsed as randomly as it had expanded. The ADQ has never had more than five seats in Quebec's 125-seat National Assembly. If he can't do better this time, he must surely pack it in, and perhaps the party with him, washed up before he's 40.
Except it's getting a little weird again for Mario Dumont. Denis Lessard wrote in La Presse that Dumont floated into the 2003 campaign in a hot-air balloon, with nowhere to go but down, but that he has surfaced off the coast of the 2007 campaign in a submarine. Nobody saw him coming. Nobody knows how much damage his salvos will do to those two old fortresses, the Liberal party under Jean Charest and the Parti Québécois under André Boisclair.
"Au Québec, on passe à l'action," the slogan on the side of Dumont's bus says. In Quebec, we get into the action. The young leader's photo, tall as the side of the bus, is grim and stubbly. Apparently with all the action there is no time to smile or shave. Dumont is gambling that bold, broad-stroke policies will get him the attention and votes he needs. He wants to send every young parent whose child isn't already in daycare $100 a week, non-taxable: a child-care cheque more than four times what the Harper government delivers from Ottawa. He wants to double the province's energy-efficiency effort and sell the electricity he saves to foreign customers for a tidy profit. He wants to abolish school boards. It is best not to ask for details. He doesn't have many. But he has more or less cornered the market on big ideas in this campaign.
Jean Charest has clearly decided big ideas are nothing but trouble. When he lost the 1998 election and won in 2003, he kept talking about "reinventing" or "re-engineering" Quebec. For the last four years, just about every big idea he brought into government has bought him grief or turned to vinegar. So this time he is campaigning for smaller tax cuts, less new spending, teenier baby steps than ever. Dumont calls it Charest's "chloroform campaign." He means it as an insult but Charest doesn't seem to mind. If Dumont is action, Charest is momentum, or perhaps inertia.
And what is Boisclair? Quebecers don't seem curious to know. He was so young and urban and polished when he replaced Bernard Landry, who was none of those things. Now Boisclair's youth and polish and, above all, his urbanity - he has spent his life in Montreal, a city other Quebecers find baffling - may ruin him. He can't seem to connect. His platform is as radical a plan for secession as any PQ leader's, but it replaces the word "referendum" with a marshmallow phrase, "popular consultation." It's not quite right to say Quebecers aren't fooled. They aren't even interested. A Léger Marketing poll on Monday put the Liberals at 37 per cent, the PQ at 28, and the ADQ at 24. That's unusually high for Dumont's party and catastrophically low for Boisclair's. If the trend were to continue, the PQ would be on track to its lowest share of the popular vote since 1970 and a historic crisis of confidence.
This would be good news to Stephen HARPER. The Prime Minister insists he is staying out of the Quebec election. He must have a hard time keeping a straight face. His finance minister, Jim Flaherty, will bring down a budget on March 19, only seven days before Quebecers vote. It will contain billions to "fix" the "fiscal imbalance," an imaginary problem of great concern to Quebecers, or at least to those Quebecers who write newspaper editorials. The entire campaign before March 19 amounts to a phony war. The last week will be the damnedest thing anyone ever did see.
Maclean's March 12, 2007