MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

No ‘winning conditions’

The poll reflects uncertainty dogging the unity debate

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 28 1998
MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

No ‘winning conditions’

The poll reflects uncertainty dogging the unity debate

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 28 1998

No ‘winning conditions’

MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

POLITICS

The poll reflects uncertainty dogging the unity debate

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Gérard Simoneau seems just the sort of voter that federalists would count on in Quebec's never-ending constitutional wars. The 55-year-old Simoneau, who lives in the Eastern Townships municipality of Fleurimont, greatly admired the late Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, praises Jean Charest's performance as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, and boasts that all three of his children are fluently bilingual—with two of them living in Alberta. “They just love it there,” enthuses Simoneau, an unemployed cook who regrets never having learned English. Just one problem: Simoneau voted for the Parti Québécois in the Nov. 30 election, for the Bloc Québécois in the last two federal elections—and for the Yes side in the 1995 sovereignty referendum. But, Simoneau says, “I’m no sovereigntist: my door is certainly open to listen to the rest of Canada—if it is prepared to better accommodate Quebec.”

Open—but how far, and for how long? Once again, as this year’s Quebec election and the Maclean’s/CBC year-end poll by The Strategic Counsel indicate, Quebecers are keeping their options open on their political future. The survey was conducted more than a week before the Nov. 30 election, which ended with the PQ winning 75 seats, the Liberals 48 and the Parti action démocratique du Québec one. But in one of those anomalies of the electoral system, the Liberals actually drew the most votes—43.7 per cent compared with 42.7 per cent for the PQ and 11.8 per cent for the ADQ. And that split “is consistent with the poll’s findings,” says Strategic Counsel chairman Allan Gregg. “Both indicate the extent to which Quebecers vote strategically to balance both sides against each other.”

On the one hand, Quebec respondents say they prefer the federal Liberals over the Bloc Québécois by 51 to 40 per cent. And more Quebecers are satisfied than dissatisfied with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s performance—by 39 to 33 per cent. Still, 60 per cent of respondents in Quebec think Chrétien should resign rather than run for a third term, fewer than one in four think he is the best person to lead the federal side into another referendum—and 56 per cent think it likely that Quebec will separate within a half-century.

Those findings, like the election results themselves, reflect the uncertain air that hangs over the unity debate, as both sides pause to catch their breath. Commenting on the results, Premier Lucien Bouchard acknowledged that the “winning conditions” he wants before calling another referendum are not in place—and that he has no idea when, or if, one will take place. Meanwhile, the federal government was ready to implement its so-called Plan B—a hardline response to the separatist argument—if the PQ had drawn enough support to encourage a quick referendum. But now everyone has cooled down: strategists on both sides say they are mindful that voters want them to move on to other issues.

The poll figures also reflect a weary acknowledgement—reflected across the country—that Quebec secession is a perpetual, barely changing blip on the political radar screen. Across Canada, 54 per cent of respondents think it unlikely that Quebec will become sovereign; 42 per cent consider it likely. The figures are almost identical to responses in 1996, a year after a referendum that the federalist No side won by less than a percentage point.

Perhaps the biggest change in the unity battle is a shift in opinions regarding who would best represent the federalist side in another referendum. In 1997, then-Tory Leader Jean Charest was the first choice of half of decided respondents in Quebec, and 24 per cent elsewhere, while Chrétien followed with the support of 25 per cent of respondents in Quebec, and 43 per cent elsewhere. At the time, another 15 per cent were undecided.

This year, Chrétien’s support is almost identical in Quebec, at 24 per cent, but has fallen 19 points in the rest of the country to the same figure. By contrast, Charest, who reluctantly took over the Quebec Liberal leadership under heavy pressure last April, has become more popular on this issue in the rest of Canada—and less so in his home province. His backing among Quebecers drops 16 points to 34 per cent. Much of his support seems to have moved over to Joe Clark, his former Tory colleague and now the reborn federal party leader—preferred as a federalist leader in a referendum by 14 per cent of respondents both inside and outside Quebec.

Charest’s loss of support reflects the sharp distinction many Quebecers make between politicians at the federal and provincial levels. When he was a federal leader, Quebecers took pride in that, and in his bilingual, bicultural qualities. But those qualities became drawbacks when he entered the provincial arena: Charest was criticized immediately for being out of touch with provincial issues such as health care and education. There were even suggestions that, because of his ease in both official languages, he did not understand the logic underpinning Quebec’s legislation protecting the French language. Simoneau, who lives in a riding next to the Liberal leader’s, now has a chance to take a closer look at Charest, who served as an MP in Ottawa for 14 years. “He spent too much time away,” says Simoneau. “Now, he can have four years learning about Quebec, and then we will see.” On the constitutional front, added Simoneau, “We need new thinking from him: my impression is that he likes the status quo, and that is not good enough.”

Apart from the unity issue, those Quebecers ambivalent about aspects of their country and its government have more in common with other Canadians than they may realize. “This is a government and populace well matched in their pragmatic outlook at life,” says Gregg. “What is lacking is any buoyancy about the future.” That emerges in topics ranging from pension payments to tax rates to the question of how to deal with the unity issue: many respondents across the country express doubts or dislike of the Liberals’ handling of those issues.

Percentage of respondents saying the chances of Quebec leaving have increased since the 1995 referendum:

Quebec: 28% Rest of Canada: 21%

In 1997 Quebec: 17% Rest of Canada: 16%

Percentage expressing confidence in the federal government to lead the nation into the next referendum: Quebec: 39% Rest of Canada: 60%

First choice to lead the federal side in the case of another referendum: Jean Charest

34% in both Quebec and the rest of Canada (Chrétien is second choice with 24% in both Quebec and the rest of Canada)

But that puts neither Chrétien personally, nor the party he leads, in any electoral peril. On the contrary, respondents are unimpressed by the other parties, and less than half see any point in the Tories and Reform merging in a unite-theright movement.

Not surprisingly, the highest levels of dissatisfaction are on matters that relate to the wallet. By a margin of more than 3 to 1, respondents are upset about the amount of tax they pay. Quebecers, who have one of the highest tax rates in the country, are the most concerned, with 86 per cent expressing unhappiness. The dissatisfaction level is lowest, at 70 per cent, in the Prairie provinces—including Alberta, which has one of the country’s lowest tax rates and no provincial sales tax. And there is a growing sense, particularly among younger Canadians, that they are paying for programs that they may never benefit from using. In particular, 44 per cent of respondents think they will eventually receive less from their federal pension plan (or in Quebec, the provincially run plan) than they put in; only 22 per cent expect to receive more.

But while all of that may cause annoyance, none of it amounts to the sort of anger that would cause voters to displace either the Liberals or the Prime Minister at the ballot box. In addition to the liberals’ wide lead as the preferred party of 51 per cent of respondents, Chrétien nationally remains the choice of 19 per cent of voters for prime minister, with that figure highest in Ontario (at 24 per cent) and lowest in British Columbia (12 per cent). And even though that makes him the first choice of fewer than one in five voters, it still puts him far ahead of any competitor either within or outside his party.

Finance Minister Paul Martin, Quebec liberal Leader Jean Charest and Conservative Leader Joe Clark follow with roughly 10-percent support. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein nips at their heels with nine per cent Then come New Democratic Party Leader Alexa McDonough (six per cent), and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin and Reform Leader Preston Manning (all at five per cent).

Given those responses, why would Chrétien want to change his slow-and-steady approach to such major issues as government spending and the unity debate? In the wake of the Quebec election, the provinces have launched a new campaign to have Ottawa hand them both the money and the responsibility for the country’s network of social programs. One reason is to show Quebecers that federalism is flexible. But federal strategists suggest that Chrétien is preparing to draw his own line in the sand. “We don’t want to get to

the point,” said one, “where Canadians feel that they get all their helpful services from the provincial government—and that all the federal government does is take money from them.” Already, that challenge is evident in the words of Simoneau, who says: “Ottawa sure takes a lot of money from us—and I don’t know that we get very much in return.” To keep themselves in government—and the country they govern united—the Liberals must find ways to demonstrate to all Canadians that such a sentiment is not true.

DISUNITED ALTERNATIVE

From his home in Windsor, Ont., 71-year-old Frank Archer keeps a keen eye on the political world—and often does not like what he sees. His instincts, he allows, have always been conservative, but never blindly so. Archer, a retired plant supervisor, voted for the Progressive Conservatives of Mike Harris in the last Ontario election, but now says: “He has tried to do too much, too fast.” He has often supported the Tories federally as well, but, similarly, remembers Joe Clark in his brief tenure as prime minister in 1979 as a man who always “tried to move too quickly.” Archer worries about the size of the debt, frets that the Liberals are not doing enough to maintain the quality of health care but, overall, thinks Prime Minister Jean Chretien is “doing a heck of a job.”

Those who look for support for the idea of uniting the right by merging the Tories and Reform will not find it in people like Archer—or among most respondents to the Maclean’s/CBC poll. “The only conclusion you can draw,” says pollster Allan Gregg, a onetime Tory strategist, "is that for the two sides to merge, Reform would have to disappear—and that’s hardly likely.” In a variety of ways, the figures bear out that assertion. Although Reform is now the official opposition, with 60 of the 301 House of Commons seats, it lags behind the Tories in popularity almost everywhere in the country. And leader Preston Manning, after nine years at the head of the party, is the third choice of respondents to lead a united right, after both Clark and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein.

From the outset, 54 per cent of all respondents do not even like the idea of a merged party. Even in Reform’s stronghold in the Prairie provinces and British Columbia, less than half of respondents are in favour of it. But if it does happen, 58 per cent of respondents are unlikely to vote for such a party. And as for the best choice to lead it, 43 per cent said Clark—who has already said he will not attend a Reform-sponsored United Alternative meeting to be held in February. The second choice, Klein—who will attend the meeting—was cited by 22 per cent, and Manning by 14 per cent.

The problem confronting Reform and the Tories is exactly the one that has bedevilled them in the last two federal elections. Because support for Clark and the Tories is broadly distributed, they risk being unable to translate that into a significant number of seats. On the other hand, Reform virtually ceases to exist outside the Prairies and British Columbia— so it appears to be near the ceiling of its support. As well, says Gregg, “The data show that those who would vote for Clark would pretty much not support Manning under any circumstances, and vice-versa.”

The other problem is that, although both parties are considered rightwing, their approach differs on many issues. The Tories' fiscal policies have arguably been stolen by the Liberals, and their approach to Quebec is much more moderate than Reform’s. In fact, Manning recently has been sounding more conciliatory towards Quebec in an apparent attempt to win support in the East. But that is a risky approach, because it may alienate or confuse more traditional supporters. Consider Archer, who, when asked his opinion of Manning, took a long pause before saying: “I thought I knew what his party stands for, but he changes his mind too often for me to keep up.” For Manning, who prides himself on always trying to put principles ahead of politics, that may be the unkindest cut of all.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Percentage of respondents saying it is likely Quebec will be a separate country within the next 50 years: Quebec: 56 Rest of Canada: 38