Stephen Harper's secret weapon in Quebec

Any Conservative gains in the province will have much to do with insider Denis Lebel

On the blitz

David Kawai

Just about the only good word to be said for the faceless government office towers in downtown Ottawa is that you can get an excellent view from their top floors. Denis Lebel steered a visitor toward the floor-to-ceiling windows lining two walls of his 29th-floor office.

“My colleagues tell me this is the best view in Ottawa,” the minister of (take a deep breath) transport, infrastructure and communities and minister of the economic development agency of Canada for the region of Quebec said. He pointed down to the Chaudière Falls, the Supreme Court building, and the Parliament buildings arrayed far below.

“This is the highest office in the building,” Lebel said, leaning forward conspiratorially as he delivered his patter. “Nowhere to go but down.”

It’s a great line, but these days it’s not really accurate. The federal Conservatives are doing so poorly in Quebec that it would be hard for them to sink much lower. The 10 MPs elected in Lebel’s home province in 2006 looked like a breakthrough, but the Conservatives could do no better in 2008 and they took a dive in 2011, finishing with only five MPs out of Quebec’s 75 seats. A Harris-Decima poll this month put the Conservatives at 10 per cent in Quebec, which, if there were an election, would be low enough to wipe out the party’s remaining MPs in the province.

It’s not clear the Conservatives can find a way back from their Quebec doldrums. But if they find a solution, Lebel will be a big part of it. Quietly, he has become one of the most influential ministers in Ottawa.

The best measure of his subtle influence is the number of times his name pops up in the government’s cabinet committee system.

Months go by between meetings of Stephen Harper’s full cabinet. The weight of the executive work in this government is done by a small number of cabinet committees. Their number and composition changes, but since last May’s election there have been seven. Lebel sits on four of them: national security, economic prosperity, and the two central coordinating committees, operations and priorities and planning. Only James Moore, Jason Kenney and Marjory LeBreton also sit on both of the latter two committees. Only Kenney sits on as many committees as Lebel does.

Until now Lebel has exercised his clout well away from the public spotlight. But he has become an increasingly prominent spokesman for the government in Quebec’s small towns and outlying regions.

The Prime Minister’s schedulers send Harper into Quebec once a month, like clockwork, but rarely for more than a few hours and rarely outside Montreal, Quebec City or the Quebec side of the National Capital Region. Lebel, on the other hand, blitzes the province most weekends. “Last week I was in Rouyn-Noranda, Victoriaville, Drummondville, Chambord, Lac Jalbert, Roberval,” he said.

Lebel’s quiet omnipresence, both at cabinet tables and across the province that poses the biggest headache for Conservatives, is getting noticed in Ottawa. Low-key and tireless are starting to sound pretty good, when you compare it to some of the alternatives. The lead political minister for the province, Industry Minister Christian Paradis, is having a rough year. The ethics commissioner has found Paradis guilty of conflict of interest for helping ex-Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer sell green energy to the government. Two more conflict investigations over Paradis’s conduct are under way.

The best-known Quebec Conservative MP, the lantern-jawed libertarian Maxime Bernier, still hasn’t lived down the damage he sustained to his career prospects when he left sensitive government documents at the home of a girlfriend with a colourful history in 2008. Steven Blaney and Jacques Gourde round out the list of Quebec Conservative MPs. Both men are perfectly nondescript. If Harper shuffles his cabinet this summer, something most Ottawa Conservatives take as a given, it’s increasingly likely Lebel will get a prominent portfolio commensurate with his insider clout.

It’s been a long climb. “My father never owned a car,” he said. “The highest salary he ever earned was $19,000. My mother worked in a women’s clothing store. I did a lot of sports; I hitchhiked to practice. But my mother showed us how to travel to far-off places by reading. And we learned about geography, as much as possible, the same way.

“As for my father, he was all about art and culture. My father was a foreman at a sawmill, then a baker. Sunday mornings at home it was Caruso, di Stefano, the great opera stars on the radio. My uncle founded the first art gallery in the region. So I’m a maniac about music. I used to play trumpet in bands that played the music of Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears.”

As a younger man, Lebel ran a fast food restaurant and a clothing store. He became mayor of Roberval in 2000. It’s in the Lac Saint-Jean region, home to sovereignist heavyweights like Lucien Bouchard and former Bloc Québécois house leader Michel Gauthier. Lebel himself was a paid-up member of the Bloc for eight years. He now insists he was never an “activist” for the party.

He won a by-election in 2007 after Gauthier left federal politics. A year later the federal government cut international touring subsidies for performing arts groups. Somebody at the PMO decided it would be a great idea to talk up the cuts as evidence of solid small-c conservative thinking. Just about every arts organization in Quebec rose up to campaign against the Conservatives in the 2008 elections. Miraculously, the party held on to its 10 Quebec MPs, but hopes for growth had to be postponed. Perhaps indefinitely: the chill between Quebec voters and Harper’s party turned into a deep freeze.

Since the 2011 election, the Conservatives have managed only to dig themselves deeper. Harper appointed an auditor-general, Michael Ferguson, and a communications director, Angelo Persichilli, who spoke no French. The government scrapped the long-gun registry and then sought to eliminate the registry’s existing database even after the Quebec government objected.

Today most pollsters have the Conservatives a little higher in Quebec than Harris-Decima’s 10 per cent, but the party is still faring far worse there than in any other region of the country. So far it’s seemed like a manageable problem. The Conservatives have their majority, after all. But no prime minister who likes to win can long ignore Quebec, which has twice as many ridings as Alberta does.

Conservatives talk hopefully about catching a wave in the weeks before an election and picking up seats where they seem today to have little hope. After all, they say, Jack Layton managed the trick. But there’s a threat on the horizon that could materialize long before the next federal election: the danger that Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois might form Quebec’s next government. By law the province must hold elections before the end of 2013. Marois has been leading Jean Charest’s Liberals in recent polls. Privately, sources close to Harper have been expressing considerable anxiety about the prospect of a new national unity crisis.

If it came to a showdown with a new Premier Marois, the Conservatives would have far less prominence and credibility in Quebec than the Liberals did when Pierre Trudeau confronted René Lévesque in 1980 or Jean Chrétien was pushed to the brink of catastrophe in 1995 by Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard.

So it can’t be encouraging for the Conservatives when a commentator as prominent as the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert writes, as she did last month, that British Columbia’s James Moore is the only cabinet minister who can speak eloquently for the government on the popular Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle. “Among Harper’s cast of mostly docile performers,” Hébert wrote, “few have better perfected the art of surfacing to flap their flippers at the call of their media trainers than the four Quebecers whose survival in the last election earned them a place at the cabinet table.”

Lebel insisted he’s not hurt by that kind of writing. But he couldn’t help sounding defensive. “I can’t be the phantom MP of every riding in Quebec, and do TV in Montreal every weekend at the same time,” he said. “There’s no MP in our caucus from Montreal. The closest is from Thetford Mines,” a three-hour drive away.

So on weekends he’s all over the regions of Quebec. On weekdays he is everywhere in Ottawa at once. Mondays he’s transport minister and attends meetings of the cabinet operations committee, which handles hot files that preoccupy the whole government. Tuesdays he handles Quebec economic development files and meets with the priorities and planning committee, which does the government’s longer-term preparation.

Wednesdays are for provincial and national caucus meetings and the cabinet economic development committee. Thursdays it’s national security committee. “From Monday morning to Thursday night, I know I have no time. I was talking about it with my chief of staff this morning. We often don’t have time to see each other in a week.”

He used to bike 6,000 km in a summer. These days that’s cut in half. The job itself uses up his stamina, and that of his staff. “The woman who greeted you at the door was a Triple-A Cégep volleyball player. My chief of staff was a catcher for an Atlanta Braves farm team. The whole staff is athletes and music fans. It’s about commitment. People who are up early, up late, people who are used to training, to getting involved.”

None of it will do much good if the Conservatives can’t shake their image as a party of Calgary oil sheiks who can’t speak French. Like anyone else who is honest about Quebec politics these days, Lebel can offer no guarantee about how the province’s fickle voters will vote next. “For the past few years, the crystal ball has been cloudy.” He only hopes economic issues will be salient next time, and the $55 million the feds put into a deep-water port at Sept-Iles will be the kind of thing that looks responsible and forward-looking.

The Conservatives’ strong emphasis on natural resources exports preoccupies Lebel, too. “Where I come from, 72 per cent of the economy depends on the forestry industry. It used to be that half of that wood was sold to the United States. They’re going through a major economic crisis. They used to build 1.2 million homes a year, now it’s under 400,000, three times less. So we have to adapt to global demand. One day the U.S. will come back, but globally there’s an enormous demand for natural resources and we have so much.”

If exports pick up and the government looks like it had something to do with that, the Conservatives might be able to build a case with their toughest audience. It’s a big “if.” Meanwhile Lebel contemplates the view from the 29th floor, and the drop.