CANADA

In the eye of the beholder

Both sides claim victory in the numbers war

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 26 1994
CANADA

In the eye of the beholder

Both sides claim victory in the numbers war

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 26 1994

In the eye of the beholder

Both sides claim victory in the numbers war

Forty-eight hours after Quebecers settled their electoral scores at the polls, a related battle still raged in the pages of two Montreal newspapers. “Léger & Léger: sure value” read an advertisement taken out by the polling company of the same name in Le Journal de Montréal.

“CROP got it right,” said an ad on the same day by the Centre de Recherches sur l’Opinion Publique polling firm in Le Devoir.

Both firms, not surprisingly, claimed that they provided the most accurate prediction of the election’s outcome.

CROP, in the week before the Sept. 12 vote, said that the Parti Québécois would win 43 per cent of the vote and the Liberals 46 per cent. Léger &

Léger, the following day, forecast 49 per cent for the PQ and 44 per cent for the Liberals. The actual final result: Parti Québécois, 44.7 per cent;

Liberals, 44.3 per cent.

The fledgling Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) party won just over six per cent.

Who, then, could claim to be Quebec’s most accurate political pollster? With the ambivalence typical of many issues related to Quebec political life, the answer is both sides—or neither. Léger & Léger, for example, accurately predicted that the Parti Québécois would win more votes, but CROP gave a closer estimate of the overall vote totals of each party. Who cares? That answer is much clearer: few Canadians, outside of Canada’s forever-chattering class of journalists, academics and politicians. Most other people likely agree with the late John Diefenbaker’s observation that “polls are for dogs.”

But among those federalists and sovereigntists who will be trying to win votes in the upcoming referendum, the closest scrutiny of those same polls is about to begin. ‘These are the times that try a pollster’s nerves the

most,” said Claude Gauthier, the president of CROP, last week. “And it is about to get even more nerve-wracking.” But the bottom line, says Guy Lachapelle, a Concordia University political science professor and frequent polling consultant, “is that you can look at the

HOW QUEBEC VOTED

PQ 77 seats 44.7%

Liberals 47 seats 44.3%

Parti Action 1 seat 6.5%

Démocratique

[election] results and find great and sincere cause for optimism—whether you’re a sovereigntist or a federalist.”

That is because of the difference a percentage point can make in a province where about 20 per cent of undecided and eligible voters will ultimately determine whether a majority of Quebecers say they want to leave or stay in Canada. Before that question is answered in a referendum, the nice thing about

polls for politicians is that, depending on how they are interpreted, they contain something to placate everyone. “In the polls,” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said after the vote last week, “it is very clear that Quebecers do not want to move to separation.”

Perhaps. In the wake of the election, most steadfast federalists took solace in the fact that the Parti Québécois obtained far less than the 51 per cent of votes that the Yes side would need to win a referendum on Quebec independence. Anyone who voted Liberal, they argued, must be a firm federalist—while not all of those who voted for the Parti Québécois and ADQ are necessarily sovereigntists.

But sovereigntists, meanwhile, comforted themselves by presuming that if they add the six-per-cent vote of the “soft sovereigntist” ADQ vote to their own 44.7-per-cent total in a referendum, they are on the verge of achiev-

ing their promised land. Those who voted for the ADQ, argued premier-designate Jacques Parizeau, “share our conviction” in favor of sovereignty.

Perhaps. Once again, there is ammunition for both sides. CROP, which has done the most extensive polling on how supporters of different parties would vote in a referendum, has figures that lend weight to the federalist side. Fifty-two per cent of ADQ voters are opposed to sovereignty, CROP’S surveys indicated—and 20 per cent of those who planned to vote for the PQ also said that they were against sovereignty. But those polls cut both ways: CROP’S polling also indicated that 13 per cent of francophone respondents who planned to vote for the Liberals describe themselves as “favorable” to sovereignty.

The main reason for that is the sympathy for both sides that traditionally resides in the hearts and souls of francophone Quebecers. In CROP’S most recent poll, there was a virtual tie between francophone respondents—at about 45 per cent each—when they were asked how they would vote in a referendum on Quebec independence. (Anglophones and allophones, who make up about 20 per cent of eligible voters, were massively against sovereignty.) But repeated polls have shown that Quebecers do not automatically think of “sovereignty” as being the same thing as “separation”: in CROP’S poll, when voters were specifically told that sovereignty was defined as “no longer being part of Canada,” the number of supporters dropped by eight percentage points. “Quebecers,” said Gauthier, “remain attached to Canada even when they don’t like to admit it.”

That fact is reflected in the surprising popularity of the ADQ, a party that stands firmly on both sides of the question. (It won an estimated 11 per cent of the vote in the 80 ridings, out of 125 in the province, where it ran candidates.) One of the key elements of its electoral platform was its insistence that Quebec should declare independence—in order to then gain better terms in a political and economic association with the rest of Canada. Party leader Mario Dumont, 24, and its co-founder, former Liberal Jean Allaire, have been careful to say they have not yet decided which side they will support in a referendum—although most political analysts

take for granted they will join with the PQ on the Yes side. But some of the party’s literature is, at best, confusing, and at worst, deliberately misleading. In the Gaspé region, for example, where there is a substantial anglophone, pro-federalist population, one local candidate listed one of the party’s key objectives as being a “partnership with the other provinces in a united Canada.”

At the same time, the best means of wooing the collective votes of the province’s young francophones between the ages of 18 and 34 remain a mystery to pollsters and most politicians. More than any other age group in the province, francophone youth appear divided in their voting habits. In this election, an estimated 55 per cent supported the Parti Québécois, while 31 per cent backed the Liberals and 14 per cent were for the ADQ. But in the two previous elections, voters in the same age group gave majority support to the Liberals. They are also the one segment of society where support for sovereignty often outstrips support for the Parti Québécois.

One reason for that split, says CROP’S Gauthier, is the traditional rebelliousness of youth: “They tend to be against whoever is in power.” Another factor is exasperation with long-ensconced politicians of all stripes. “You can hardly blame young Quebecers for being fed up,” says 36-year-old federal Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest, who represents the riding of Sherbrooke. “When I was 18,1 would turn on my television set and see Jacques Parizeau and Jean Chrétien debating the future of Quebec and Canada. Now, I’m half a lifetime older, and it’s still the same people debating in the same way. When will it end?” To that question, not even the polls give a satisfactory response.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH