ELECTION FOCUS ?06

The fight over who can win in Quebec will sway votes in the rest of Canada

The battle to win seats in Quebec has been conceded to the Bloc Quebecois, but the battle for Quebec will figure large as the election campaign heats up in coming weeks.

This apparent contradiction is simply to illustrate that while Gilles Duceppe and his sovereignists are likely to win even more of Quebec?s 75 seats than the 54 they now hold, the Liberals and Conservatives will be fighting hard to prove who would be the better custodian of national unity.

The NDP hardly figures in this fight, given that their role, at best, would be to put pressure on the party that winds up on top in a minority Parliament.

This is why Stephen Harper kicked off his campaign in Quebec, and why he has offered a more ?open federalism? that would let Quebec send its own representatives to international conferences.

The offer was sharply attacked by Prime Minister Martin. He said Canada speaks with one voice, not two or ten. Yet, Harper?s offer was not much more than a repeat of what Martin himself had already advocated. Remember, too, that Martin was no supporter of the Clarity Act, and that his Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre, was a co-founder of the Bloc Quebecois.

Harper stepped up the war of words when he accused the Liberals of hoping for a PQ victory in the next Quebec election. That would work in their interests, he said, because it would let the Liberals provoke a confrontation in which they could play the role of national unity superheroes.

It didn?t take long for the Prime Minister to shoot back: ?He should be just embarrassed. The fact is that fighting the separatists and fighting for national unity is part of my DNA.?

Along with a place for Quebec at global conferences, Harper also has offered to correct the ?fiscal imbalance? between Ottawa and the provinces. All the premiers like to hear talk like that, but it rings especially loudly in Quebec. Premier Jean Charest welcomed Harper?s offer, saying he was taking very careful note of it.

The Conservative party spent the pre-Christmas stage of the campaign setting out an array of new policies, ranging from cutting the GST to tax credits for child care, more spending on the military, and a vigorous presence in the Far North.

In the second half of the campaign, we can expect both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton to return to attacking the Liberals over the sponsorship scandal. The Gomery hearings were huge in Quebec, and voters there ? French, English as well as others ? are still furious over how the sponsorship program was misused to fatten ad agency pockets while sending illegal cash to Liberal candidates.

In another arena, Stephen Harper used a visit to B.C. to pledge more defence spending in the West, along with ?a military presence? in large cities to help deal with emergencies.

?Canada?s military capacity in this region has been allowed to age and deteriorate,? he said. ?British Columbia, which is in an earthquake zone, is now the only region of the country without a regular army presence.?

The Conservatives have no great expectations of scoring an electoral breakthrough this time in Quebec. If they take one seat it will be an upset, two an upheaval, and three an earthquake.

More than winning Quebec seats, the Tories need to demonstrate their ability to put forward policies that are reassuring to Quebec. By doing this, they have a chance of achieving something even more important? reassuring Ontario voters that they?re capable of handling the national unity file.

The Tories still have a long way to go to blunt Liberal allegations that a Conservative government with no members from Quebec would be a disaster for the country. You can just imagine Gilles Duceppe ranting that it?s an English-Canadian government.

The sponsorship scandal still hangs over every Liberal effort to counter rising Bloc strength. Even star Liberal candidate astronaut Marc Garneau, has had to struggle to dampen criticism of his decision to run to replace a retiring Liberal MP.

?It?s been solved,? he said of the Gomery inquiry. ?The Liberal party has taken a beating, now it?s time to move on.?

The Bloc has brought a few new twists to this campaign. For the first time, leader Gilles Duceppe is appealing to ethnic voters by stressing that an independent Quebec would offer an equal home to all its citizens. He speaks of his own English grandfather, one of the ?British Home Children? who were sent to Canada to escape poverty in England. The Bloc also has candidates of Haitian origin running in Montreal seats with a heavy immigrant population.

The last poll gave the Bloc 50% of the decided vote, compared to 32% for the Liberals.

Because the popular vote can?t be translated into seats, few forecasts are being issued as to the possible outcome on January 23. The polls, however, suggest the Liberals will lose seats in Quebec and Ontario, but will recover at least some of their numbers in B.C.

It all points to an even more closely divided minority Parliament. With the outcome so uncertain, every party will be tempted to ?roll the dice? in a last-minute strategy to sway voters. Get ready for an exciting ride to the finish!