CANADA

The NDP’s Quebec gamble

BRUCE WALLACE December 14 1987
CANADA

The NDP’s Quebec gamble

BRUCE WALLACE December 14 1987

The NDP’s Quebec gamble

CANADA

The new leader of Quebec’s provincial New Democratic Party is a bearded translator who has been defeated in each of his six campaigns for elected office. But for Roland Morin, 57, winning the leadership of the fledgling provincial party on Nov. 29 was a long-awaited step out of political obscurity. Morin immediately announced that he would seek a seat in Quebec’s national assembly, running in a byelection next year to fill the vacancy created by the resignation last month of Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Marc Johnson. And Morin served notice that the hard-line language policies and left-wing economic views on which he has campaigned in the past would be the hallmark of his leadership. Said Morin: “I am quite radical—and proud of it.” Morin’s win signalled a clear victory for the party’s Quebec nationalists. In speeches and resolutions, delegates who gathered in a downtown Montreal hotel warned Premier Robert Bourassa’s governing Liberal party to be vigilant in maintaining Quebec’s unilingual French character. The convention also indicated that the NDP would seek to take advantage of its unprecedented popularity in public opinion polls—and the uncertainty over the

future of the leaderless PQ—to emerge as the alternative to the Liberals. Indeed, outgoing party president JeanPaul Harney told the Montreal gathering’s 360 delegates, “What the NDP will become is a truly new Parti Québécois.” But many political analysts say that support for the New Democrats among Quebecers has already peaked. That

The New Democrats have never been so popular in Quebec—but their support may already Have peaked

view was buttressed by a Nov. 28 Sorecom Inc. poll showing the provincial wing favored by just 13 per cent of Quebec voters, down from 18 per cent in September, compared with 53 per cent for the Liberals and 33 per cent for the Parti Québécois. Many blame that drop on confusion among voters over the conflicting stands taken by federal and provincial New Democrats on such fundamental issues as the Meech Lake

constitutional accord. And they warn that the provincial party’s strong nationalism might indirectly damage the federal party’s chances of making a long-awaited electoral breakthrough in Quebec—a breakthrough critical to a strong national showing in the next federal election. Said consumer activist Phil Edmonston, who was elected to the provincial party’s executive despite his opposition to Morin’s firm stance on language: “The NDP’s great leaders like David Lewis considered minority language rights to be a sacred trust—and now we have abandoned that tradition. We blew a seldom-offered opportunity to become a real alternative.”

Still, the New Democrats in Quebec are poised for he first time to shed their image as a marginal collection of intellectual socialists. The party has never elected a federal or provincial member, but since the 1984 general election, support for the federal New Democrats has climbed slowly in Quebec—as in the rest of Canada. By last summer, with the federal Liberals struggling with their internal divisions over the Meech Lake accord and John Turner’s poor personal standing in Quebec opinion polls, the New Democrats surged ahead of the Liberals among decided voters there.

Some of that wave of NDP growth spilled into the provincial arena. Found-

ed in September, 1985, the provincial party—which won just three per cent of the vote in the December 1985 Quebec election—has recently challenged the PQ in opinion polls.

But that popularity has been slow to translate into party memberships—now at an unspectacular 8,000. Said Dr. Paul Cappon, a leading nuclear disarmament activist who will run in the next federal election:

“The NDP must broaden its base into the middle class if it is ever to take power federally.

I am not interested in going to Parliament as an opposition backbencher.”

Critics charge that the New Democrats’ surge has stalled because Quebec voters remain confused by the federal party’s unique structure that requires anyone wishing to join it be a member of a provincial party as well. But federal and provincial New Democrats in Quebec have some significant differences. While federal leader Ed Broadbent endorsed the Meech Lake constitutional agreement, the provincial party has attacked the deal, insisting that it does not give enough power to Quebec. Party officials postponed debate over those differences

at the November convention, claiming that there was not enough time to consider the question.

As well, the provincial party’s decision to support French-only signs will make it difficult to recruit members among English-speaking Quebecers—

for many years the party’s most loyal constituency in the province. Other recent events, such as the embarrassing resignation on Oct. 27 from the NDP of Quebec MP Robert Toupin, have damaged the party’s credibility and heartened Conservative and Liberal strategists. Said Liberal Jean-Claude Malépart, MP for the east-end Montreal riding of Ste-Marie where the New Democrats had hoped to make a breakthrough: “They have lost speed and are starting a free fall.”

Publicly, NDP officials in Ottawa downplay the clash between the federal and provincial parties, and liken their recent drop in the Quebec polls to a needed correction in a runaway stock market. Said George Nakitsas, the federal party’s director of research: “We may have differences of opinion, but we would still be in the ball game in most ridings if an election were called now.” But privately, some federal New Democrats admit to nervousness about their relationship with a nationalist Quebec party led by Morin. Acknowledged Michael Cassidy, the Ottawa MP who chairs the federal party’s Quebec committee: “There are risks involved in establishing ourselves in Quebec.” And given the NDP’s ambitions for federal power, it is a sizable risk.

—BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal