Separatist-bashing in Ottawa may have helped PQ

While Stephen Harper toasted a federalist victory in the Quebec election, some sovereigntists suggested Tuesday they might have him to thank for their higher-than-expected score.

While Stephen Harper toasted a federalist victory in the Quebec election, some sovereigntists suggested Tuesday they might have him to thank for their higher-than-expected score.

PQ supporter Martine Leblanc Constant celebrates at a Montreal rally for Pauline Marois. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))
The prime minister issued a statement Tuesday applauding Jean Charest's Liberals on recapturing a majority government.

Harper said he looks forward to working with the re-elected premier at a first ministers' conference on the economy next month.

"I am very pleased that Quebecers have chosen a federalist government," Harper said.

"We shall continue to obtain tangible results for all Canadians, including Quebecers.… The government of Canada remains determined to build a strong Quebec within a united Canada."

Meanwhile, pundits in the province were speculating that the prime minister had helped build a stronger Parti Québécois in Monday's vote.

The PQ has throughout its history fared worse on election day than its poll numbers would suggest, while the Liberals have traditionally benefited from what Quebecers call the ballot-box bonus.

Not this time.

In a reversal of the historic election-day trend, the PQ performed far better than expected and closed so much of the gap between itself and the Liberals that it nearly deprived Charest of a majority.

The PQ's share of the popular vote was just seven percentage points less than the Liberals  — this after polls just days ago placed it 14 points behind — and it held Charest's troops to a three-seat majority.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois says she's not sure whether all the separatist-bashing in Ottawa helped her party achieve a better-than-expected score.

Marois says it is too early to conclude that the Tories' blistering attacks against the Bloc Quebecois helped the PQ – but she added that if they helped anyone, they helped her party.

"At the end, maybe that was better for us because we saw that Mr. Harper did not respect the view of the Quebecers," Marois said.

The Conservatives denigrated the proposed governing arrangement between the Liberals and the NDP as a so-called "separatist coalition."

Harper's strategy has helped build widespread opposition to the coalition across Canada – but it also reignited talk of sovereignty after the issue had all but fallen off the radar screen for most of the Quebec campaign.

Charest, whose Liberals won 66 of the province's 125 seats, said it is impossible to determine how the the Conservative comments determined the outcome of the election.

"I don't know how it impacted the vote," Charest said at a news conference in Quebec City.

"Other people will say that what happened in Ottawa reinforced the vote of the Parti Québécois. In the end I am not sure. I don't know."

Charest also downplayed suggestions his party did not fare as well as it thought it would.

"I'm proud of the fact Quebecers answered my request for a stable and majority government," the premier said.

Charest said he will swear in his cabinet before the holidays because it is important to show Quebecers he is committed to addressing the current "economic storm."

In Toronto, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty lauded Charest's re-election.

"It seems to me that every time that we have the election of a federalist government in the province of Quebec, that's great news not just for Ontarians, but for Canada as a whole," McGuinty said.

"And I look forward to continuing to work with him, look forward to continuing to lend further strength to Central Canada. Many of our challenges and opportunities are the same."