Closeup/Politics

The right hand man

As Lévesque appeals to hearts, Parizeau does to minds

David Thomas August 7 1978
Closeup/Politics

The right hand man

As Lévesque appeals to hearts, Parizeau does to minds

David Thomas August 7 1978

The right hand man

Closeup/Politics

As Lévesque appeals to hearts, Parizeau does to minds

David Thomas

Brolly tucked under his arm and his round head nattily topped by a bowler, Jacques Parizeau strutted about London’s grey financial district, assimilating a British taste for the gracious exercise of power. That was in the early 1950s when the precocious son of Montreal’s French-speaking bourgeoisie was a privileged expatriate in England earning the London School of Economics doctorate that would, 23 years later, merit the praise of Ontario Treasurer Darcy McKeough who calls Parizeau “the only professional finance minister in the country.” The Quebec minister’s economic mastery, but most of all his British bearing, solidly supported on a foundation of selfassurance, make him remarkable not only among finance ministers but within his own government where his conservatism stands out like the rock at Percé in a roiling sea of visionaries.

Parizeau, who speaks the Queen’s English with more polish than most anglophone politicians in Canada and occasionally lets slip a “by jove” in conversation, very nearly chose to settle in London at the end of his three years of study. Had he done so, Jacques Parizeau would not now be finance minister, of course, but furthermore Quebec might not be governed by the coalition of separatists for whom Parizeau means financial credibility outside and popular confidence at home.

He is the only Parti Québécois politician so far capable of rallying Quebeckers to unanimous opposition to the federal government. It was Parizeau’s finesse that skewered the spring budget of federal Finance Minister Jean Chrétien. Because Parizeau refused Chrétien’s sales tax reduction scheme and countered with a more popular one of his own, Ottawa decided to pay out Quebeckers’ share of the federal largesse directly in $85 cheques to individual taxpayers. Now, as the cheques go out, Parizeau must come up with a scheme to recover the $186 million in a way that will stick the odium, both for sending out the money and then having it taken away by Quebec, firmly to the federal government. Parizeau is hiding his intentions behind a self-satisfied smile until mid-autumn. A somewhat less confident expression covers the reasons for his double about-face on the sales tax issue when he told Chrétien to go ahead with the $85 payments to individual Quebeckers after Quebec refused the federal sales tax plan and then, just when the issue had died, revived his original opposition.

While Parizeau claims it was all part of “strategy,” the unexplained reversals may

in fact have exposed what could be his major flaw—impulsiveness. Parizeau’s cerebral powers are imposing but there are times when he appears overly confident in his own wisdom and erupts with flamboyant actions he must later undo. One example from the past was his leap of faith in the creation of the pro-independence newspaper Le Jour which failed in 1976 after V/i years, leaving a dark cloud of embarrassment over the Parti Québécois. And now even though Prime Minister Trudeau himself has conceded that the Liberals lost face in the sales tax bungle, Parizeau may have again been too smart for his own government’s good. There’s no doubt that the Parti Québécois wanted to embarrass the federal Liberals as they prepared for a general election. But the fallout of Parizeau’s clever decree of selective tax

cuts on furniture, clothing and shoes rattled the Ottawa government so much more than anticipated that it helped Trudeau decide to call off plans for a spring election. That, in turn, was an unexpected curve which sent Quebec’s referendum strategy reeling off the tracks. Premier René Lévesque had been counting on a June election to clear the calendar of electoral activity so he could choose a date for his appeal for popular sanction of his government’s drive for Quebec’s independence.

Once the federal election is out of the way, though, and the Parti Québécois unleashes its referendum campaign, Parizeau must again shoulder more than his share of his government’s load. Unquestionably, the fundamental snag in the minds of most Quebeckers is the cost of independence. It will be Parizeau’s job to reassure them. If

he succeeds with voters as much as he has in his efforts to impress bankers and other finance ministers of his economic competence, even PQ leftists will excuse his cocky conservatism.

Parizeau’s greatest political force is not fiscal management but sheer showmanship. He can announce a provincial budget with the arrogance of a 19th-century railroad builder, thumbs and forefingers stuffed into his bulging waistcoat in what would be a parody of robber baron capitalism if it were not so clearly serious. But then, when the Sun Life Assurance Co. quits Quebec, he can metamorphose public fear into offended anger by puffing himself into the image of an outraged father calling down God’s wrath upon a brigand sailor fleeing with his daughter’s honor and dowry. Parizeau was born 48 years ago into the

shaded and comfortable enclave of Outremont, the French-speaking rival of Westmount on the opposite slope of Mount Royal and Quebec’s increasingly heavy centre of political gravity as money and youth drain from the anglophone elite. The wealth of his insurance broker father gently delivered Parizeau into an existence so cushioned that he has never had to learn to drive a car. Young Jacques was sent to Paris and London for the academic and social credentials that would usher him into the inner circles of the techno-intelligentsia then plotting the 1960s “quiet revolution,” the logical conclusion of which, according to Parizeau, is independence.

When, in 1969, Parizeau formally declared his conversion to the Parti Québécois, his reputation in a domain French Canadians historically considered beyond their temperament changed the whole image of the independence movement. It also helped sluice away from federal politics the cream of a succeeding generation of Quebeckers, less impressed by the promise of bilingualism from sea to sea than by the

vision of economic and personal power inside Quebec. In some ways,, Parizeau’s declaration of fidelity to the cause of independence was as significant as Lévesque’s. While Lévesque reconciled nationalism and the political left, Parizeau brought economic respectability to separatism with his experience at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, his teaching at Montreal’s Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales and his prominence as financial adviser to federalist Quebec governments.

The story of his born-again conversion to separatism reads like a scene from a political soap opera. The timing was dramatic: 1967, Canada’s centenary. And no locale could be so wrought in nemesis as a westward-bound train of the Canadian Pacific, the line that in its construction was the cause and cement of Confederation. Some-

where along the track between Montreal and Banff, Parizeau gave up on it. He had been invited, as one of Quebec’s bright young technocrats, to address a hope-filled conference on Canada’s future. But as he worked away at his presentation to the reflective rhythms of a bedroom car ticking over the rail joints, Parizeau came to the conclusion that Canada suffered a fatal design flaw with no imaginable remedy. Decentralization, he concluded, had gone much too far to permit rational governing of Canada. If the country were ever to work, power must be concentrated in Ottawa—a transfer of authority Quebec would never, in any circumstances, accept. Ergo: Canada must split into two centralized states.

Parizeau calls the three-day train trip his Road to Damascus. His Banff treatise became part of the independence movement’s dogma and was reprinted in Lévesque’s 1968 book, Option-Québec, the bible of then-coalescing separatists. Not all Parizeau observers accept that sheer economic and political logic explains his switch. “It’s

perhaps more because of his Latin blood. He would rather be mayor of a village then deputy mayor of Rome,” says Jacques Guay, journalism teacher at Laval University and a former employee of Parizeau’s at Le Jour.

While still a federalist in the 1960s, Parizeau was considered for, but didn’t get, a senior Bank of Canada job. That may have reinforced his feeling that French Quebeckers had meagre futures in the federal administration. Douglas Fullerton worked with Parizeau during those years and he writes in his book The Dangerous Delusion: “Parizeau’s emotional and political transition had been taking place over the whole of the ’60s. It had been in part a product of rebuffs from Ottawa, one of them certainly being the absence of any job offer from the federal economic establishment at a level that Parizeau felt was warranted by his intelligence, seniority and training.”

If in fact Parizeau’s ambition, more than any theoretical justification, explains his nationalism, he represents the strongest current within the independence movement. Says Guay: “What happened to Parizeau happened to a whole generation of Québécois.” Now, however, his ambition is rewarded and, in Guay’s words, “Parizeau has the chance to play Monopoly with a province.” Clearly, he is after Boardwalk and Park Place, and he knows the rules of the game. “Government finances must be healthy to support an image of stability,” he said in an interview in his oversize, fireplaced office formerly occupied by Quebec premiers, including Maurice Duplessis. (Lévesque works in a modern suite in a new cabinet building known as “the bunker.”) It was Duplessis, stifling conservative in most things, who gave Quebec its separate income tax which Parizeau, combining the portfolios of finance and revenue, administers. Demanding of his staff, Parizeau usually starts work when morning mists still wisp over the surface of the St. Lawrence River and rarely quits before well into dark, often for the Château Frontenac’s piano bar or another of Quebec City’s warrens of politics and pleasure. Despite his late nights, Parizeau enjoys an image of stability thanks, in part, to an enduring marriage with the mother of his two children. His marital permanence and economic competence make Parizeau a reassuring complement to Lévesque whose head for figures, both financial and feminine, inspires more gossip than confidence.

Parizeau impressed the business world with his first budget in the spring of ’77, a “banker’s budget” in his own proud words. He put sound financing ahead of immediate political gain and then proved he meant it by cutting spending to even less than his already parsimonious estimates. In a government of social democrats, Parizeau protrudes like a garter-sleeved bartender playing kazoo in a Salvation Army band. Ontario’s McKeough, a conservative in a Conservative government, is envious, no-

ting that Parizeau is the only economist among the car dealers, lawyers and plumbers running the Canadian treasuries. “I think we all, as very amateur economists, respect him as a professional and his views are given a lot of weight.” Not to mention his political dexterity. “I’m described as a right-winger and he’s way over to the right of me,” affirms McKeough. “I admire his ability to be a right-wing minister in such a pink-tinged cabinet.”

McKeough’s praise is all the more significant in that it is his province that could lose the most if Parizeau succeeds in his mission. A reveler in paradox, Parizeau is struggling hard to divide French and English Canada by proving the two can get along better menage à part. Parizeau has strengthened co-operation between Quebec and Ontario but McKeough warns the goodwill would not survive separation: “I hope they understand the intensity of feeling in Ontario and that if they go their own way it would not be a pleasant scene.”

No one doubts Parizeau’s commitment to independence. He is the only cabinet minister who doesn’t cringe at the label “separatist.” Says Parizeau: “Independence, sovereignty-association, separation—it all means the same to me.” Should Quebeckers refuse the government a mandate to negotiate independence, Parizeau’s original opposition to the soft-sell referendum strategy may stand him in good stead with party militants readying for a second try. During the PQ’s years in Opposition, Parizeau built his own power base and the loyalty he won among simple party members helped him survive two crises which severely embarrassed the party hierarchy. The first was the presentation during the 1973 election campaign of Parieau’s hypothetical budget for the first

year of Quebec independence. It was designed to show the PQ was ready to take on the administrative responsibilities of government but, because of an error in the numbers, proved just the opposite and helped Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa romp home with all but eight of the National Assembly’s 110 seats. Then less than two months before the last election, Parizeau was again the red-faced centre of attention when Le Jour ceased publishing. Victim of internal political struggles and an advertising boycott by the federal and provincial governments, Le Jour was a bad idea at the wrong time and it forced Parizeau into financial acrobatics to keep it afloat. Ironically for a man now minister of revenue, Parizeau resorted to outrunning the tax man to stave off bankruptcy, deducting income tax payments from the paycheques of the newspaper employees but using the money to pay production costs. Concedes the minister: “For pretty long periods of time we didn’t send in the money. The tax people got excited until we paid and then we didn’t pay again for a while.” But Parizeau refuses to confirm stories that he mortgaged his own home to save Le Jour from the bailiff. When the end did come, Parizeau managed to collect enough money from wealthy personal and party friends to pay the newspaper’s debts and avoid a legal bankruptcy that could have provided federalists with an effective argument that the Parti Québécois meant economic disaster. Undermining confidence in the economic sense of PQ policies, especially independence, remains the principal federalist strategy.

Counteracting that worry is Parizeau’s most important preoccupation and, without revealing prevailing cabinet opinion, he describes the challenge this way: “There are two main strategies possible. The first, to be as reassuring as possible, to avoid worrisome themes and to appeal to all nationalists, including those outside the Parti Québécois. Even if we don’t bring up the scary themes, the Opposition will. The second option consists of taking the bull by the horns—to accept, for example, that the value of money in an independent Quebec worries people and we should therefore talk about it every week. By the time of the referendum, the federalists won’t be able to excite people with some old issue we would have been talking about for a year.”

But, says Parizeau, if he had but one thought to implant in the minds of voters on referendum day, it would be “selfresponsibility,” an appeal to their pride as individuals capable of taking full control of their affairs. Here, numbers won’t be enough and Parizeau’s other, more formidable talent of salesmanship will be the more crucial. Muses Jacques Guay: “If Parizeau were less educated, he would have all the Fuller Brush trophies on his mantelpiece. He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos— and,maybe, independence to Quebeckers!’^