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Quebec’s electoral clout losing its mythical status

Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

When Kevin O’Leary abruptly exited the Conservative Party leadership race last week, he cited his lack of support in Quebec as a reason.

Quebec was critical for the party to win, he said. “Look at how many times Quebec has determined federal outcomes. It is the Florida of Canada. It often decides for the country.” Mr. O’Leary is now supporting Quebecker Maxime Bernier, who is drawing a lot of his support on the basis of the argument that Quebec is indeed key to the party’s fortunes.

But is it? Since it could be such a major consideration in the leadership race, the premise need be examined.

In the 2011 election, when the Conservatives won a majority with 166 seats, they won but five in Quebec. They would have won that majority with no Quebec seats. They won 73 seats in Ontario in that election. That was the key.

In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Conservatives won minority governments. They won 10 seats in Quebec in each campaign. They would have won both elections without any Quebec seats.

The Tory victories before these came under Quebecker Brian Mulroney. In 1984, he won 211, a record number of seats. He broke through in Quebec, winning 58, but even if he had been shut out in the province and all those seats won by Grits, he still would have had a majority. His 1988 majority was certainly helped by winning 63 Quebec seats, though he still would have won a minority with only a small portion of them.

In 1958, when John Diefenbaker won a majority with 208 seats, he took 50 seats in Quebec. But were they crucial to the victory? Not at all. Give those 50 to the Liberals and the majority was still his.

With 75 seats, there can be no doubting Quebec’s electoral power. The strange thing is that, most notably in recent decades, it hasn’t played out that way.

As the record shows, while they obviously would have benefited from more support in the province, Conservatives have not needed Quebec support in order to win. As Stephen Harper amply proved, they still don’t.

Seat redistribution before the last election diminished Quebec’s clout. It got no additional seats, while Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia increased their totals. The waning of the separatist threat has also lessened the province’s Canada-wide influence. For parties and voters, the stakes aren’t as high.

For the Conservatives, the winning coalition is the West and Ontario. For the Liberals, it’s the East and Ontario, with Ontario increasingly playing a more significant role than Quebec.

Quebecker Jean Chrétien won three straight majorities, taking about 100 seats in Ontario in every one of them. Remarkably, had the party been shut out in Quebec in all three elections, he still would have won those majorities. In Justin Trudeau’s 2015 majority win, the Liberals took 80 seats in Ontario and 40 in Quebec. Take away all 40 seats and give them to the Conservatives and the Liberals still would have won, albeit a minority.

In the leadership race, Mr. Bernier, from Quebec’s conservative La Beauce region, will no doubt win the lion’s share of delegate votes from his province. But how popular his libertarian conservatism on economic and environmental issues might be in a general election in Quebec is highly debatable. In the Conservative caucus, Mr. Bernier’s Quebec argument is not finding much favour. Of the 138 Tory MPs and Senators, only 16 are supporting him. Highly respected Quebec caucus member Gerard Deltell isn’t going the favoured son route, opting instead for Ontarian Erin O’Toole.

Because of his inability to speak French, Mr. O’Leary made the right decision to drop out of the race. Major party leaders must be bilingual. But he overstated the importance of Quebec in electoral terms for the party. He had a good case for continuing, based on his strength in Ontario. The Conservatives can win without Quebec. They can’t win without Ontario.