Endorsements, opinions flourish in Quebec

Do newspaper endorsements really make a difference during a political campaign?

To the surprise of nobody, many endorsements and opinions in Quebec have been voiced during this federal election campaign, with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's campaign being one of the central targets.

In our effort to give readers a taste of what is being said in the province, we did stumble on one surprise: an influential newspaper that picked none of the parties nor leaders running for office, perhaps a telling sign of a campaign that's done little to impress.

Quebec's esteemed newspaper of record La Presse did just that this week, in what editor-in-chief André Pratte called a "sad realization."

"None of the federal parties has proven it is really ready to govern the country in this period of economic incertitude," Pratte wrote on Oct. 9.

Editorial boards traditionally back a party and leader at the tail end of any political campaign, making their case based on performance, platform, past policies and posterity.

La Presse backed Harper's Conservatives in 2006, hoping that once in office, the new Tories would prove moderate, sensitive to the majority's wishes, and faithful to Canadian values.

"Unfortunately, on many fronts, the Harper government has profoundly disappointed us; the Conservatives definitely do not deserve the majority they hoped for at the start of the campaign," Pratte said.

The Tories scored some points in Quebec while in office — addressing the so-called fiscal imbalance and the Québécois as a nation motion are accomplishments repeatedly trotted out to prove Harper's commitment to the province.

But on other fronts — greenhouse gas emissions, lowering the GST, cabinet minister problems, foreign policy — the Conservatives have shown "a rare incompetence," Pratte said.

Harper's stubbornness to adjust his tack when he's been wrong "is a source of worry among Quebecers as it is for many Canadians," he said.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, an "idealist with undeniable integrity" performed beyond general expectations but "it can't make us forget the serious difficulties he's had at the head of the party, that raise many doubts about his talents as a leader," Pratte said.

While the Bloc remains a political power, "it is unhealthy that Quebecers deprive themselves of strong representation from federal parties that can actually govern."

Tory platform flat-lines as markets collapse

As Canadians' attention was drawn to the problems on Wall Street, the financial meltdown "changed the campaign's psychology," as Chantal Hébert put it in her blog on l'Actualité.

With that backdrop, the Conservative party unveiled its platform, in what should have been a highlight of its bid for office.

But it was "a painful moment to witness," columnist Brigitte Breton wrote in Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil.

"It's not the Conservative platform we've been talking about since [Tuesday], but how thin their proposed measures are to stimulate the Canadian economy and prevent a financial crisis like the one shaking the United States," Breton wrote this week.

Opposition parties are mining the financial crisis, but the fact remains that "they can't do anything to calm or discipline completely irrational markets," argued La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal.

The Tories' "minimalist" platform faithfully reflects Harper's stance on issues since the start of the campaign, and builds on sound economic strategies the Conservatives introduced and adopted a year ago — but that's not what voters want right now, Le Devoir editorialist Manon Cornellier argued this week.

Conservative strategists hoped Harper's more muscled claims about the economy would consolidate support, Hébert reported this week.

But the Tory leader's problem is that he suffers "from an empathy deficit that he seems incapable of overcoming."

When he should be driving home his point the Tories are best to steer Canada through a crisis, "Stephen Harper couldn't help but expound on the good deals the financial situation is offering investors," Hébert wrote in her blog.

It's given Dion "an unexpected occasion to convince a critical mass of voters to reconsider their verdict," but not necessarily in Quebec, where the cement is drying around a Bloc Québécois majority, she predicted.

The election outcome rests with Ontario voters, possibly "the most volatile and least predictable bunch in Canada," she said.

The Globe and Mail and the National Post, we point out, both endorsed Harper in recent days.

Fear of the faux pas

Early on in the campaign all signs pointed to a very possible blue Conservative wave in Quebec — or even a series of wavelettes, outside the greater Montreal area, as La Presse's Vincent Marissal called the potential Tory sweep.

Now it appears the Tories are hard-pressed to hold on to some Quebec seats, with former cabinet ministers Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Michael Fortier battling strong opponents in their respective ridings.

Manon Cornellier blames it on a faux pas fear. Conservative candidates were muzzled, Harper never ventured into an unvetted crowd, and every campaign event was heavily produced, Cornellier wrote this week.

The concern about missteps was "so endemic among Conservatives they didn't seem to realize they were shooting themselves in the foot by trying to control mistakes," she wrote.

Harper's attempts to seduce Quebec ended up ringing hollow for many who saw his overtures as "smoke and mirrors," wrote Joseph Facal, a columnist with Le Soleil.

The Québécois as a nation motion has no executive teeth, the fiscal imbalance still exists according to some observers, and Quebec's seat as UNESCO amounts to a "Quebecois bureaucrat part of the Canadian delegation," the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister wrote this week.

"Why would Harper risk, in order to make gains in Quebec, to anger the Rest of Canada and lose support when he can stay in power with a handful of Quebec deputies?" Facal asked.

Then there's a personality issue, La Presse's Vincent Marissal suggests. "Mr. Harper — as everyone who knows him well has realized — is a loner, a cold strategist, often very partisan, a control freak who doesn't like to be contradicted," he wrote last weekend.

Quebec culture lost in translation?

Harper fared well in the French debates, despite being attacked on all fronts, especially by Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe. "He projected an image of calm and moderation that helped subside those fears," wrote La Presse columnist Alan Dubuc.

"He was terse but he achieved his objectives."

But Harper stumbled on matters of culture — Quebec's cherished hot-button issue that strikes the deepest chords of its distinct identity.

The Tory leader ignored Quebecers' fury over culture cuts, and missed a chance in the debate to explain.

Quebecers "hoped at least that he'd underline the importance of culture in Canada, and in particular, in Quebec," Pratte said.

Harper's gamble that culture doesn't matter to Quebecers may still pay off at the polls, but the Tories were ridiculed by inspired "artistes" who produced an explosively popular video called Culture en péril mocking English-speaking "square-head" bureaucrats in Ottawa, which did nothing to bridge the two solitudes.

The Tory leader also faced an improbable tandem formed by Quebec Liberal Premier Jean Charest and Gilles Duceppe, Vincent Marissal wrote this week.

The Liberals and the Bloc are unlikely bedfellows, but Charest's demands in the campaign — seat redistribution in  the House of Commons, opposing tougher youth crime sentencing, tougher firearms control — are the Bloc's trusted war horses.

"Without its sovereigntist urgency, the Bloc has become the best messenger for Charest in Ottawa," Marissal suggests.

Duceppe has "exceptional talents" and continued to enjoy a privileged tribunal in this election, Pratte said. "Having never governed, he has no track record to defend, because he'll never govern, he can promise everything, and criticize everything."

Many Quebecers will prefer to vote for a party that doesn't govern at all, he concluded.

"Gilles Duceppe is more interested in talking against Harper than for the Bloc," wrote Richard Martineau in Le Journal de Montréal.

Blocking a Tory majority may earn dividends on voting day, but "all that hate risks to come back and haunt him."