When Chantal Hébert predicted this whole Larry Smith business in an eerily well-informed Dec. 3 column, I took a moment to mourn the spectacle of a Conservative party so unmoored from modern-day Quebec that its next star candidate would be named “Smith.” Don’t get me wrong: A guy named Smith or Wells is always greeted with a smile in Chicoutimi or Quebec City, but he is unlikely to pick up a lot of votes from a Ouimet or a Côté. Smith is a well-regarded professional-sports executive with solid French, but that’ll get an anglo the same sort of cool respect a James Moore or a Jack Layton gets among francophone voters.
Anyway, I’m slow but maybe not hopeless. Three weeks later I realize that’s not where the game is.
The latest Léger poll for Le Devoir (sorry, I don’t have a link handy; I’m reading my .pdf copy) shows the Conservatives have 22% of the non-francophone vote in Quebec — compared to 47% for the Liberals. (The Bloc’s at 6% among non-francophones, tied with the Greens at 7%, and the NDP is at 17%). “Non-francophone” is of course not a geographic designation, although those voters are concentrated around Montreal. Léger also looks at the Montreal census metropolitan region, and finds the Bloc leading with 31%, the Liberals nearly tied at 28%, the NDP well back at 20%, and the Conservatives behind them at 16%.
If you’re a Montreal federalist, especially if you speak English, you are far more likely to have voted Liberal in the last three elections than an otherwise similar voter anywhere else in the country. (For comparison, here’s a random, not-very-recent poll showing the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals in Toronto.) There is simply no other comparable bastion of apparently-natural Liberal support left in Canada.
Old habits die hard. Until now it really hasn’t mattered very much who the Conservatives ran in Montreal or what they proposed. In 2006 in Outremont they ran a Rhodes scholar named Daniel Fournier, real-estate executive, chairman of the Ogilvy board, museums, YMCA, pillar of the community type. He got 13% of the vote and came in fourth. Now, Outremont’s been Liberal almost since Confederation with only two exceptions, but in an environment where the Conservatives were an accepted part of the landscape, a candidate like Fournier would not have received a result like that.
By now you will understand what it took me three weeks to figure out. Larry Smith’s assignment, beyond winning Lac St.-Louis from Francis Scarpaleggia if that can be done, is to spearhead the most serious Conservative attempt yet to replace the Liberals as the default vote choice of federalist Quebecers, especially but not only non-francophones. For personal reasons I have always thought of that broad and heterogeneous demographic as “Gazette readers,” and as Gazette readers will recall, Larry Smith used to be that paper’s publisher.
Wishing for a thing does not make it so, but the Conservatives’ wish here is big: after conceding Montreal for three elections in a row to seek votes in more surprising places like the ring around Quebec City, Stephen Harper is finally going after Quebecers whose French sounds like his.