Canada

A SYMPATHETIC EAR

BRENDA BRANSWELL December 14 1998
Canada

A SYMPATHETIC EAR

BRENDA BRANSWELL December 14 1998

VICTORY FOR ALL

Canada

BRENDA BRANSWELL

Francophone voters Yves Gélinas and Stephen Amnotte chose opposing parties in Quebec’s provincial election. But both reacted with relief last week in the aftermath of the Parti Québécois victory. Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard’s decision to put a sovereignty referendum temporarily on ice came as welcome news to both men: Amnotte, a Montreal translator who voted liberal, and Gélinas, a Shawinigan machinist who voted for the PQ. like most Quebecers, neither wanted the PQ to launch another vote on independence. “I think people are more interested right now in their own wallets and making sure the economy stays afloat,” said Amnotte, 31, who was angry over the PQ’s budget cuts and voted liberal to give the party a chance. As for Gélinas? “I’m very happy,” he said. Gélinas, 46, voted PQ largely because he liked the Bouchard government and its track record at slaying the deficit. “The referendum is not a priority,” he added. “And Bouchard sensed the message.” True—although it may not have been to his liking. For a victor, the premier wore a thin smile. But perhaps the most telling sign of his mood following the election was his victory speech. Normally a riveting orator, Bouchard delivered a flat, uninspired address to supporters at the PQ’s largely moribund campaign headquarters in Quebec City. It was hardly the kind of win Bouchard wanted for his first elected mandate. His party captured a solid majority— 75 seats to the Liberals 48—but to almost everyone’s surprise their popular vote lagged slightly behind the Liberals’: 42.7 per cent compared with 43.7 per cent. No doubt Bouchard also smarted from the knowledge that former premier Jacques Parizeau, a frequent thorn in his side, posted a slightly better score for the PQ in the 1994 election. Péquistes had expected—and wanted—at least 47 per cent of the popular vote as a launching pad for another sovereignty vote. It was not to be, and as a subdued Bouchard later acknowledged to reporters, his initial conclusion is that Quebecers simply want the PQ to govern. “They like what we are doing as a government,” said the premier. “But they are not prepared to give us the conditions for a referendum right now.” Federalists reacted positively at the respite, as did the money markets: the dollar rose and Canadian bond prices shot up. While pollsters faced queries about their skewed predictions—

Lucien Bouchard wins a majority-but still suffers a setback

in the week before the election, almost all had predicted a landslide for the PQ—Bouchard shifted his attention, at least temporarily, away from a referendum to potentially fractious talks between Ottawa and the provinces over limiting federal spending power in social programs: the so-called social union. Meanwhile, he faces problems on the home front: contract negotiations with Quebec’s powerful public sector unions should pick up steam now that the election is over. But, for a short while at least, all was calm. “It’s the first time that everyone is happy,” said Jean Lapierre, a popular Montreal radio talk show host. “Everyone called to say they were satisfied.”

For the provincial Liberals, the results could have been far worse. One poll conducted a week before the election gave the PQ a 10-percentage-point lead. But in the final days of the campaign, an invigorated Liberal Leader Jean Charest stepped up the attack, warning voters of the prospects of a referendum under a PQ government. That may have sent some voters back to the Liberals. As a result, Charest, who won a moral victory of sorts from the popular vote— and kept his Sherbrooke seat by a slim 900 votes—vowed to stay on as Liberal leader. But although he managed to deflect some criticism for what had been for the most part a lacklustre 33-day campaign, there were the inevitable negative postmortems. David Price, a Conservative MP from the Eastern Townships who sat in Charest’s caucus before the former Tory leader jumped to provincial politics in March, suggested Charest received an overdose of advice from too many different quarters. “He didn’t let loose on his own,” Price told a reporter. “That wasn’t the normal Jean.”

Liberals also offered up their own theories of what went wrong. “There is going to have to be a cleanup in the party’s apparatus,” contends veteran Liberal John Ciaccia, who recently stepped down after 25 years as an MNA “They had a communications problem in terms of getting their message across.” But the election also highlighted the Liberals’ persistent failure to attract adequate numbers of francophone voters (one pollster estimates that the PQ held a 15 per cent lead over the Liberals in francophone support at the ballot

box). “We’re going to have to win over our francophone clientele if we hope to regain power one day,” says Georges Farrah, the party’s former whip, who lost his Magdalen Islands seat to a PQ candidate. At the party’s first caucus meeting in Quebec City last week, Charest suggested that the party needs to further clarify its constitutional policy—and other Liberals quickly weighed in. “It’s often said that the liberal party isn’t perceived among francophones as the party that best defends Quebec’s interests,” says Jacques Chagnon, caucus chairman. “If that’s our problem, then we have to find the means to show that it’s otherwise.”

The Liberals also need to win over more younger voters. A few promising young Liberal candidates became MNAs last week, such as Nathalie Normandeau, a 30-year-old former mayor from the Gaspé region. But the party didn’t make its hoped-for inroads with the 25to 35-year-old age-group. “I think we missed our chance,” says Chagnon. And he points to the four-year-old Action démocratique du Quebec, which picked up a surprising 12 per cent of the popular vote, as the likely beneficiary. “All of a sudden, the ADQ appeared as a more attractive alternative than us,” Chagnon says The ADQ fielded candidates in all of Quebec’s 125 ridings. But for most Quebecers, leader Mario Dumont is the party. Dubbed “Super Mario” by the media, he proved himself a force to be reckoned with. A former Liberal, Dumont quit the party in 1992 after being ousted from his position as head of the party’s youth wing for opposing the Charlottetown constitutional accord. He benefited most from the televised leaders debate on Nov. 17, scolding Bouchard and Charest. Dumont had to settle for one seat last week: his own Rivière-du-Loup riding. But his party, which is considered a “parking vote” for disaffected Liberals and Péquistes, played a spoiler role.

The PQ’s second mandate promises some hurdles. More cuts are in store next spring because of the PQ’s promise to balance its books by 2000. Although the PQ has insisted it will achieve that goal, Finance Minister Bernard Landry acknowledged earlier this fall that the uncertain global economic situation will likely make it more difficult. But public sector negotiations may give the PQ their first headache. The unions tabled their demand last summer for an 11.9-per-cent increase over three years, which they will pursue in earnest now that the election is over.

Some observers remain convinced Bouchard will try to stage a referendum during his new mandate. Last week, the premier refused to say how long he was placing the idea on hold. But once the budget is balanced, some Péquistes say, the party should start actively promoting sovereignty. “If we want the idea to advance in public opinion we have a task of persuading and explaining to do,” says Claude Lachance, PQ MNA for Bellechasse, south of Quebec City. The uncertainty over the timing of a future referendum sits poorly with so-called pur et dur sovereigntists like Pierre de Bellefeuille. “Bouchard got the mandate he asked for,” contends de Bellefeuille, a former PQ MNA under René Lévesque. “I don’t see at all why he’s putting it off like that indefinitely.” Although de Bellefeuille believes party members will be critical of Bouchard for putting the referendum on ice, he thinks the premier’s decision will prevail. “Bouchard is an authoritarian man,” de Bellefeuille complains, “and the party has become docile.”

In the short term, Bouchard is committed to the social union negotiations. He stressed the urgency of the talks, given the upcoming federal budget (Quebec worries that Ottawa will propose new spending programs in provincial domains), and says the province won’t compromise on its desire to opt out, with full compensation, of federal programs in provincial jurisdictions. Some observers predict gains for federalists if Ottawa and the provinces strike a satisfactory deal. But opinion is divided over what failed negotiations would mean. While some predict that sovereigntist passions could be inflamed, others disagree. “I don’t see a protest on the streets over spending power,” says Lapierre. “Have you ever been to a party where there is a heated argument over the social union?” Perhaps not—but in Canadian politics, stranger things have happened. □