CANADA

The ‘boss’ takes charge

Lucien Bouchard prepares to deal with Quebec’s deep-seated financial problems

BARRY CAME January 29 1996
CANADA

The ‘boss’ takes charge

Lucien Bouchard prepares to deal with Quebec’s deep-seated financial problems

BARRY CAME January 29 1996

The ‘boss’ takes charge

CANADA

Lucien Bouchard prepares to deal with Quebec’s deep-seated financial problems

For two gruelling days last week, Quebec's cabinet wrestled with a fiscal nightmare. All 17 ministers in outgoing Premier Jacques Parizeau's Parti Québécois government took part in the ordeal, conducted be hind the sturdy oak doors of the national assembly's cabinet room in Quebec City. They spent the time combing the government's accounts in a desperate search for ways to meet budgetary targets, a task that involved slashing more than $1 billion from a budget of $42.4 bilhon. Some around the table, led by `inance Minister Pauline Marois, thought hey had at least half of the solution-a )ne-percentage-point rise in the provin ial sales tax that would generate $500 riillion in new revenues. But the idea vas rejected, by a voice that was not wen present for the cabinet discussions.

‘The economy does not need a tax hike at this time,” Lucien Bouchard declared in Montreal as the ministers tussled with the government’s books in the provincial capital. And that was enough to signal the proposal’s swift demise.

If there were any lingering doubts about the full extent of Bouchard’s command of the party and the government he will officially take control of early next week, they were erased by the cabinet’s alacrity in acquiescing to his wishes about the sales tax increase. The hike—from 6.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent—had been scheduled to be introduced on July 1. It had been forecast in last May’s budget by then-Finance Minister Jean Campeau, who had portrayed it as the penalty that would follow a No vote in the October referendum and who had even entered the additional anticipated revenues on the government’s books. Only last week,

Campeau’s successor, Marois, described the increase as “inevitable.” But as the cabinet prepared to embark on its two-day quest for measures to keep this fiscal year’s deficit from rising above a projected $3.9 billion—after Ontario’s, the worst provincial deficit in the country— Bouchard’s pronouncement changed everything. “He’s the boss,” shrugged PQ MNA David Cliche. “And if the boss says he doesn’t want it, then you can be sure that it isn’t going to happen.”

Precisely what Quebec’s new boss does want is the subject of hot conjecture, not only in the province among both Péquistes and Opposition Leader Daniel Johnson’s Liberals, but also in Ottawa and much of the rest of the country. Some of the answers may soon be forthcoming. Last week, Bouchard relinquished control of the separatist party he founded in 1990, giving up the leadership of the Bloc Québécois and resigning his Lac-Saint-Jean seat in the House of Commons. On Jan. 27, he is scheduled to formally assume the leadership of the PQ. Two days later, he is expected to be sworn in as premier of Quebec when Parizeau steps down. On Feb. 19, he plans to run in a provincial byelection in the riding of Jonquière, which will allow him to take a seat in the national assembly in time for the opening of its

next session on March 12. The result in Jonquière is a foregone conclusion. Bouchard grew up in the Saguenay River town, where his mother and one of his brothers still reside. And both the Liberals and Mario Dumont’s Parti Action Démocratique have announced they will not field candidates there.

While Bouchard’s path to power seems clear, his program once he arrives remains murky. He did drop a few broad hints last week, holding a news conference in Montreal to announce that “the priority in Quebec is now to govern.” At the top of his list will be an effort to attack the province’s deficit, almost certainly through deep spending cuts and a wholesale privatization of provincially owned corporations rather than any increase in taxes. Bouchard made no attempt to disguise the pain that Quebecers are likely to face when his government’s first budget is unveiled in the spring. And he expressed dismay at the fiscal situation he has glimpsed as a result of briefings by members of the government. “I’m not sure that everyone has seized the gravity of the situation,” he said. “I myself am learning more every day.”

He is also learning that he will have to make some sacrifices himself. On Monday, Bouchard—who will earn an annual salary of $132,000 as Quebec premier—insisted that he would keep his estimated $32,000-a-year Commons pension, as well—even if Quebec secedes from the rest of Canada. “I earned it,” he said. “It’s mine.” But on Friday, battered by a barrage of criticism, Bouchard changed his mind, saying he will still take the pension but will donate it to the

“Quebec state” for as long as he is premier. The gesture, he said, came “in view of efforts which will soon be required, in the name of fairness and severity, from the entire Quebec population.” Bouchard also offered some respite to a vote-weary public, not only in Quebec. He dismissed rumors that he was planning to hold a provincial election as soon as next autumn. And he indicated that, while he had not abandoned plans for another independence referendum, a new vote is not imminent. “I can’t tell you a precise date since I don’t know it myself,” he said. “What I know is that now is not the time.”

Despite Bouchard’s assurances, there were growing signs that Canadians outside Quebec were gearing up for the next round of the national unity debate. In Ottawa, there is much speculation within Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal party about which way—and how cautiously—Ottawa should go on the unity front. What is clear is that the Quebec question colors virtually everything on the government’s agenda, from an impending cabinet shuffle to the federal | budget, widely expected in the I first week of March. Much of the P discontent is muted by Chrétien’s § firm orders to his 175-member “ caucus to remain quiet on Quebec, except on the explicit orders of the Prime Minister’s Office. But Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé acknowledged last week that the situation is “urgent.” And, he added, “We have to act as soon as we have a proper strategy in place.” ' •

Part of that strategy is a federalist pamphlet now being issued to Quebec voters. As well, Maclean’s has learned that Chrétien has been considering a new super-cabinet position to deal with national unity. Before he announced on Jan. 15 that he would seek the Newfoundland premiership, former fisheries minister Brian Tobin was offered the job. Chrétien’s agenda is driven, at least in part, by signs of increasing public frustration with what is widely perceived as the federal government’s lack of initiative. Last week in Calgary, for instance, Bank of Montreal chairman Matthew Barrett delivered a fiery speech warning that Quebec separation could cost Canada up to $200 billion in lost production. Aside from urging “dramatic action” from Ottawa, Barrett proposed a constituent assembly to fashion a new model for Canada. “Let’s come out of this post-referendum denial that we all seem to be in,” Barrett declared. ‘We can no longer afford to be disengaged or tuned out.”

Along the same lines, CRTC chairman Keith Spicer has been quietly circulating among eminent Canadians a two-pronged plan of action to counter the separatist challenge. His 12-page proposal, entitled “A New Country or No Country,” calls, on the one hand, for the development of a national blueprint for a Canada in which Quebec’s needs are taken

into account. On the other hand, Spicer calls for federalist forces to be ready with a tough negotiating stance should Quebec opt for separation. The proposals by Spicer, who served as chairman of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future in 1990, are in line with those of the Re form party. During the October referendum campaign, Reform published an agenda sketching 20 proposals for a new Confederation, including a massive devolution of powers from Ottawa to the provinces. Last week, Reform also proposed 20 “realities of secession”—among them, splitting the national debt between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and establishing a connecting land bridge between Ontario and the Maritimes—that would, in effect, be used in hard-nosed bargaining with Quebec should the province attempt to break away.

It is not only leading opinion makers who are engaged in the effort to redefine the unity debate. Grassroots groups are springing up across the country, evidence of a new mood emerging in the wake of the narrow victory for the federalists last October. “I don’t think the dust has yet settled,” argued Quebec Liberal MNA Russell Williams, who has been busily organizing a grassroots forum in his own riding in Montreal’s largely English-speaking West Island. ‘That vote has engendered a fundamental change in people. I don’t think the effort is yet focused. But it’s coming.”

The provincial Liberal party is also struggling to come to terms with Bouchard’s arrival in power. Johnson’s hold on his party is fragile—a situation aggravated by federal Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet’s recent open criticism of the provincial party leader. Johnson is determined to fight back. He embarked on a provincewide tour last week that will put him in direct contact with party members at the riding level. Officially, the reason for the trek is to sound out opinion among the rank and file. Unofficially, Johnson is trying to shore up his own position. In one sense, he can probably thank Bouchard for the fact that he is still Liberal leader. Given the new Quebec premier-designate’s overwhelming popularity, nobody else wants Johnson’s thankless job.

BARRY CAME

E. KAYE FULTON