Trudeau and Mulcair drawing battle lines on Quebec

Justin Trudeau's first event outside Ottawa as Liberal leader was in Quebec City last night, not surprising perhaps, as the province of Quebec shapes up to as the key battleground between the Liberals and NDP.

Liberals and NDP compete for Quebec vote

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Justin Trudeau's first event outside Ottawa as Liberal leader was in Quebec City Wednesday evening.

The province of Quebec is shaping up to become a critical battleground in the 2015 election and a key foothold for the Liberals in their attempt to rebuild the party.

While the Conservatives proved in 2011 they could win a majority government without the support of the province, analysts suggest Trudeau and the Liberals can’t win Canada without Quebec.

"Historically, whenever the Liberals have been in power, it's because they had a significant amount of support in Quebec," says Luc Turgeon, who teaches political science at the University of Ottawa.

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau gets his picture taken with supporters at a party gathering in a Quebec City pub Wednesday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"I think Western Canada in the short term will be a difficult place to have a breakthrough [for the Liberals]," he adds. "I think Quebec is their best hope."

At least one thing stands in their way: Tom Mulcair and the NDP caucus from Quebec.

The so-called Orange Wave swept up 59 of 75 Quebec seats for the party in 2011, almost wiping out the previously dominant party in the province, the Bloc Québécois.

But it's not at all clear the NDP will be able to command a repeat performance the next time around.

The most recent Leger Marketing poll of 1,000 people in Quebec put a federal Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau ahead of the pack at 32 per cent, with the NDP and the BQ neck-and-neck at 25 per cent each. The Conservatives trail in the province at 12 per cent.

"I think Quebecers dislike the Conservatives more than they like the NDP," explains Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of Leger Marketing.

He says the NDP benefitted during the last election from Quebecers who felt voting for the party was the only way to block a Conservative majority, which, of course, didn’t happen.

"So I think this time around if [the Liberals] really feel that Justin Trudeau can win — can win back Ontario, in particular — if they feel he's got the wind in his sails, I think a lot of Quebecers will be tempted by the Liberal Party of Canada," says Bourque.

The pollster says the polls suggest the Liberals could retake up to 20 seats in the traditionally federalist ridings, particularly in and around Montreal. The NDP could also become vulnerable in three-way races in some francophone ridings if there is a resurgence of interest in the Bloc.

Claude Denis, with the School of Political Science at the University of Ottawa and an NDP member, says his party can't take anything for granted.

"2011 was a big surprise. And so in principle at least, we'd have to say that most of those [seats] are or can be in play. Whether there's going to be any other party that's going to be competitive by the time the election arrives, is another question."

Parties stake out ground

How the Liberals and the NDP position themselves on issues near and dear to the heart of Quebecers will become very important as the election approaches, which has made for some pointed battles of late.

Take the parties’ positions on the Clarity Act, the post-1995 referendum legislation that set rules for a province to negotiate secession from Canada, including the requirement for a "clear majority" in any referendum.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair may not be seen as possessing Justin Trudeau's charisma, but he received better than 92 per cent support at his party's weekend policy convention in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Mulcair has suffered some withering attacks outside Quebec over a party motion calling for the act to be amended. Mulcair says a vote of 50 per cent plus one should be recognized as a "clear majority." It's not a new position, but one supported by the party under Jack Layton when it passed the Sherbrooke Declaration back in 2005.

Trudeau got "sucked into" the debate, according to Liberal leadership rival Marc Garneau, during a talk at McGill University, suggesting he'd prefer a much higher bar — a two-thirds vote. His proposal raised howls inside Quebec, with the sovereigntist Parti Québécois government calling his comments "irresponsible," and "anti-democratic."

"A rookie mistake," commented Garneau.

During his leadership acceptance speech, without making a direct reference to the national question, Trudeau said "Let's leave it up to others to continue the old quarrels and the old debates that lead to discontent."

But on Wednesday, the 31st anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Trudeau accused the NDP of being "lukewarm" on the document because it was not signed by Quebec. That drew an angry response from the NDP, who pledged to continue working to create the conditions under which Quebec could finally endorse it.

'Unfinished business'

So far, Trudeau has not articulated any of his positions on the national question with any kind of depth.

As the next campaign approaches, Claude Denis says, Trudeau will get squeezed more and more to speak on these kinds of issues. "The constitutional problem won't go away, and in Quebec there's a feeling that this is unfinished business," he says.

Pollster Christian Bourque agrees, but adds, "If you're Justin Trudeau, you're probably betting on the fact that Quebecers’ disinterest in hearing about it will supersede the actual issue itself; there is no hunger for taking the lid off of that pot."

Clearly Mulcair has made a different gamble.

Luc Turgeon says many of the NDP seats came from voters who had previously supported the Bloc.

Now the NDP needs to grow if it wants to be a real threat to the Conservatives. 

"If the long-term goal is to take power, the party has to make more inroads in the rest of Canada without alienating its existing base."

After its weekend policy convention, the NDP wants to be the party of ideas, versus the party of "personality," but that may not be enough.

Even while the NDP was meeting in Montreal, La Presse was featuring Trudeau's picture on its front page, followed by a two-page feature with a headline that read "Justin Trudeau: Rock Star or Prime Minister."

The paper's editor-in-chief, André Pratte, calls lack of media attention the NDP's "Achille's heel."  After Mulcair was elected last year, he didn't succeed in "proving himself the inevitable replacement to Stephen Harper."

On substance, Pratte says Mulcair is strong where Trudeau is weak, but contrary to Trudeau, "he has little charisma, he doesn't bring out the crowds... or the media."

Bourque says Quebecers are leader-driven. "They want to love a candidate. Last time it was Jack Layton, this time it could be Justin Trudeau, or Mulcair."

As for attacks from the Conservative Party, including the recent ad campaign with the theme "Justin Trudeau: Over his head," Bourque says they fall flat.

"In Quebec, the messenger has little credibility, if any."

But Claude Denis points out that two years is a long time, and Trudeau could be outdone by his own lack of experience, particularly in dealing with Quebec.

Pratte agrees it is too early to predict an outcome.

Quebecers will need more than just "rock star" qualities, he says. They'll need to think they've found someone who can be prime minister. And Trudeau, he says, hasn't done that yet.