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What a Legault-Trudeau detente might mean for the Liberals in Quebec

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ventured into Quebec twice in the past two weeks to make joint announcements with Premier François Legault.

If their new friendliness is a sign of rapprochement between the two leaders, that should make the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois a little nervous.

On Mar. 15, Trudeau was in Montreal with Legault to announce an investment in an electric vehicle manufacturer based in Saint-Jérôme, north of the city. A week later, the two men were in Trois-Rivières to announce funding for high-speed internet access in Quebec. The federal government’s portion of the cost will help Legault fulfil a campaign promise he made in 2018.

That second announcement took place in a riding Trudeau’s Liberals came just 2.4 points short of winning in the 2019 election — and where the incumbent Bloc MP has announced she will not be running again.

There was an air of collegiality between Trudeau and Legault at these announcements, with the two leaders exchanging compliments and addressing each other by their first names.

It’s the sort of the thing that can only help the federal Liberals in Quebec. Legault remains one of the most popular politicians in the province and his Coalition Avenir Québec party appears well-placed to remain in power for some time to come.

The fallout from the CPC policy convention

What’s good for the Liberals is generally bad for their opponents — particularly the Conservatives and Bloc.

The positive vibes between Trudeau and Legault stood in stark contrast to the bad feelings the outcome of the recent Conservative policy convention is likely to generate in Quebec.

While Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said his party will present a serious plan for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the image from the convention most casual observers are likely to remember is that of party delegates voting down a proposal that included a recognition that climate change is real.

In Quebec, where concerns about climate change poll higher than in any other part of the country, the perception that the Conservatives are not taking the environment seriously will not do the party any favours.

Neither will the party’s decision to change the rules for its leadership contests. A subtle shift in how votes will be counted in future leadership campaigns will have the effect of diminishing Quebec’s influence the next time the party chooses a leader.

Altogether, the fence-mending going on between Trudeau and Legault could signal that the Quebec premier is moving on from the Conservatives. With the party continuing to struggle in the polls, Legault might be calculating that he’ll have to continue working with a Liberal federal government for the foreseeable future.

Good federal-provincial relations bad for the Bloc

For Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and his party, the consequences of an improved relationship between Ottawa and Quebec City are a little more complicated.

The Bloc presents itself as the voice of Quebecers in Ottawa, so being able to extract anything from the federal government for the province can be seen as a win. But the Bloc is a sovereigntist party, after all — it has much to gain politically when the federal government is seen to be ignoring the demands of Quebec.

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Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet applauded the co-operation between the federal and Quebec governments, saying it’s a good thing if it means getting more money for the province. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

On Tuesday, Blanchet was asked by the CBC’s David Thurton for his thoughts on a closer relationship between Legault and Trudeau.

“What I say is, ‘Go, François, go! Go get it! Go get the money!'” Blanchet said. “It’s owed to us. And when it is proposals that come almost from the book itself that the Bloc Québécois wrote in the last election, we say, ‘Hey, they see the light’.

“That’s a good thing.”

He went on to give a preview of what could be the Bloc’s campaign pitch in the next election, arguing that Quebec is only able to get things like federal funding for high speed internet access because of the Bloc’s efforts in the minority House of Commons.

But the credit Quebecers are willing to give Blanchet could be limited. He only has to ask the NDP what the electoral pay-off has been for coming up with (or claiming as their own) ideas implemented by a Liberal government.

Liberals targeting Quebec seats in CAQ territory

A wink and a smile from Legault is not going to win the federal Liberals an election — but a better relationship could make it easier for them to win some of the Quebec seats on their target list for the next campaign.

Those targets can be split into two groups. The first (and larger) list includes ridings that are expected to be Liberal-Bloc contests, mostly around the island of Montreal — ridings like Longueuil–Saint-Hubert, Rivières-des-Mille-Îles, La Prairie and Thérèse-De Blainville.

These are all seats in areas currently held by the CAQ at the provincial level.

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In the next election, the Liberals will be targeting seats in Quebec currently held by CAQ MNAs at the provincial level. A better relationship between Quebec Premier François Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likely would make it easier for the Liberals to win those seats. (Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press)

The second group includes ridings that can expect three-cornered fights between the Liberals, Bloc and Conservatives, such as Trois-Rivières and Beauport-Limoilou. Again, these seats are partly or entirely represented by CAQ representatives at the provincial level.

That makes Legault a good friend for Trudeau to have — particularly since Legault’s approval rating in the province is 17 points higher than Trudeau’s, according to the Angus Reid Institute.

There is also a fair bit of overlap between the Liberal and CAQ voter bases. According to Léger, nearly a third of CAQ voters support the federal Liberals, while nearly half of federal Liberal voters in Quebec support the CAQ.

Trudeau has fewer problems around the premier’s table

It isn’t all smiles and sunshine between Legault and Trudeau, of course. As the current head of the council of the federation, Legault welcomed the recent one-time injection of federal money to top up health transfers, but repeated his fellow premiers’ demand for significant and permanent increases in health care transfers.

Still, a little peace on the provincial front could help the Liberals ahead of a potential election later this year.

The need for the two levels of government to work together during the pandemic has improved the federal-provincial relationship somewhat. Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court that the federal government’s carbon tax plan is constitutional might also lower the temperature.

Though Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe have pledged to take the carbon tax fight to the political ring now that they’ve lost the legal battle, they don’t have much political leverage. Kenney’s own political capital has been depleted by his handling of the pandemic in Alberta, while Moe presides over a province where the Liberals’ hopes of winning seats are slim anyway.

All in all, the premiers’ table is looking like less of a problem for Trudeau than it did heading into the 2019 federal election — when a gang of conservative premiers was presented as his “worst nightmare” on the cover of Maclean’s magazine.

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (left) and Ontario Premier Doug Ford played an important role in the 2019 federal election. Kenney actively campaigned against the federal Liberals, while the Liberals tried to tie Ford to the federal Conservatives. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, along with Kenney, has seen his own personal approval ratings tumble. For the most part, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has refrained from criticizing Trudeau during the pandemic. He broke that trend by calling the government’s vaccine procurement “a joke” on Friday — though that’s a problem that can be solved as soon as vaccines arrive in larger numbers.

Legault wasn’t included in Maclean’s so-called “resistance”. But while Legault ordered his MNAs to stay neutral during the last federal election, he intervened personally on issues that the federal Liberals would have preferred not to talk about, such as immigration and Quebec secularism.

A quiet Legault during the next campaign could be worth a lot to the Liberals. A happy Legault could be worth a lot more.

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