Thierry Giasson (Université Laval) has published about televised political debates in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, political journalism in the Canadian Journal of Communication, politicians’ image management in Questions de communication.
Do you know Régis Labeaume?
Régis Labeaume is the Mayor of Quebec City and the most popular/trusted politician in the province these days. Quebeckers appreciate his exuberant personality, his confrontational style and his profound dedication to the development of his city. He speaks very candidly about what he wants to achieve and his simple no-BS approach to politics has gained him legions of dedicate fans all over province. He wants residents of the Old Capital to be proud of their city. He wants to transform the municipality into one of the most thriving and attractive metropolis in the world. And he’s got a myriad of projects to achieve this goal. As all know by now, one of them is the building of a multifunctional arena to replace the decrepit Colisée, once the home of the Nordiques. Mayor Labeaume considers this new arena as the infrastructure Quebec needs to play in the major leagues (pun intended!). It would help attract large scale cultural events and rock concerts, contribute to an eventual Olympic bid and, maybe, bring back professional hockey to Quebec.
Labeaume was very acute at rallying public support behind the arena project. He made it the focus of his reelection bid in 2009, which he won by a landslide. Quebec not only needed the building to achieve its development goals, his argument went, but the city actually deserved it. Quebeckers ate his pride filled rhetoric up! The faith of the arena was sealed. From then on, it became the most prevalent political and economic issue for Quebec, its Mayor and its population.
Which brings us to the current Federal campaign. Last week, Prime Minister Harper launched his campaign in Quebec City, just as he had done in 2008. His entire speech focused on his government’s accomplishments in the region. As my colleague Jennifer Lees-Marshment reminded us last week, an incumbent administration as only but one task to achieve during a campaign: clearly demonstrate that it delivered on its electoral product. Delivery! Delivery! Delivery! The Tories hypercontroled and über-choreographed the Quebec event followed this goal.
Yet there was another reason why Mr. Harper chose Quebec as his launching pad. Polls in the Quebec Metro region show his party trailing the Bloc by a significant margin. In the 2006 election, the Conservatives won 6 seats in the Quebec metropolitain area, all at the Bloc’s expense. In 2008, the Bloc regained one of these seats. Their prospects for 2011 in some Quebec ridings are uncertain (Charlebourg-Haute-St-Charles, Beauport-Limoulou, Lévis-Bellchasse) as the PCC’s market research must indicate. Which is why the Harper campaign made its first stop in Quebec. The party wants to maintain its hold on the Old Capital’s electoral market. This might be a difficult feat to achieve for this campaign. The problem: Delivery! Except this time the failure is not necessarily due to the Tories lack of achievements in the region, it’s associated to their incapacity to deliver on someone else’s promise!
The Québec City conservative caucus failed dramatically to insure federal funding for the construction of the Labeaume’s arena. Quickly, after his reelection in 2009 Mayor Labeaume and the provincial government announced that public funds would pay for the building’s construction. The Mayor declared that he was now waiting for some form of funding from the Federal government. Fast forward to the Fall of 2010. Following a meeting in Quebec City, the caucus of Tory MPs from the Old Capital posed for an incriminating photo showing 7 of them wearing Nordiques jerseys, thumbs raised in support to the prospect of a professional team coming back to Quebec. (See picture right, courtesy of CTV)
Whoops! Many saw this ill-advised photo-op as a clear sign the MPs were in favour of the arena's construction and that the Feds would most probably contribute funds to the project. [UPDATE] Others, including the Bloc Québécois and some conservative talk radio hosts, saw in this photo a silent strategic message from the Quebec Tory caucus that laid out what was to come: "We know the arena is dedicated to a professional team, and we won't support it's funding!" In any case, the picture generated irate reactions in the rest of Canada and urged PM Harper to publicly close the door to any form of Federal contribution for an arena dedicated to professional sports. Remember, we have a deficit to pay off!
Yet, Josée Verner, minister in charge of Quebec City in the federal cabinet, kept the hope alive. For six months, pressed by reporters, Minister Verner said that the government’s final decision had still not been reached and asked the Mayor of Quebec to submit documents and business plans detailing how private investments would be included in the funding scheme. The charade went on until Mayor Labeaume and Quebec Primer Jean Charest held a press conference in February announcing they were going at it alone. Labeaume had waited long enough for the Federal government. Things had to move. Furthermore, the Mayor did not hesitate to publicly express his malaise and anger at the inhability of the Quebec City tory caucus to defend the project in Cabinet. From then on, conservative support in the region started to decline.
As Prime Minister Harper indicated in his Quebec City speech last week, the Conservatives delivered on a number of their 2008 promises for the region. The arena? It wasn’t part of their platform then. Still, the party failed to recognized this impact of what became a dominating issue in the region. Sometimes, delivering your product is just not enough! Sometimes, you must also deliver on someone else’s product, especially if this other producer is a strong actor in the market you want to conquer. The situation in Quebec City illustrates that delivery must always be achieved on the electoral product offered during an election, but that emerging issues in the inter-election context must often be dealt with and answered as well for support to be solidified and insured. The Tories in Quebec can only claim success on the first part of the proposition.
So how do you resolve this conundrum? Is there a solution?
In the case of Quebec, the solution rests with the ubiquitous Régis Labeaume. This week Mayor Labeaume is expected to present a list of projects he wants to undergo in the coming years, including public transit expansion and a Quebec-Windsor Speed Train line. The Tories will have to broker a deal with him on at least one of these ventures, gain his support and have him say publicly that they are strong advocates for the city’s interest in Cabinet. Anything short of this could have detrimental electoral implications for those MPs, but also for Prime Minister Harper, who wants to cling to his Quebec seats in order to present, if a majority were to materialize, the image of a real pan-Canadian, national Conservative government with representation from all provinces.
They also need his support because they share a constituency. The white-suburban-middle-income-young family electors representing the main targets of Conservative marketing are the same voters who elected Mayor Labeaume in 2007 and again in 2009. They gave him his dominant majority in city council and most of them believe in his publicly funded arena project. In Quebec City, Federal politics is very much local politics. Labeaume’s support could therefore prove determinant in some close contests between the Bloc and the Conservatives. The Tories MPs from Quebec must make an ally out of him. But don’t expect to see them achieve this task wearing a Nordique’s jersey anytime soon!
What are your thoughts on the impact of local politics on product delivery? Are local issues also prevalent in your riding? Does Prime Minister Harper need a strong Quebec caucus to lead a majority government?