The stakes in Quebec: if Lesage loses, so does Pearson
PETER C. NEWMANNovember31962
BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA
The stakes in Quebec: if Lesage loses, so does Pearson
PETER C. NEWMAN
WHEN NEWS of Jean Lesage’s flash election in Quebec first reached Ottawa, harried politicos of all parties reacted with a feeling of dismay at having one more variable thrust on them at a time when Canadian politics was already bewildering enough. The implications of the provincial campaign remain obscure, but there’s now uneasy speculation, particularly among the Liberals, that the character of the next government of Canada will be decisively affected by what happens in Quebec on November 14.
If Jean Lesage and his dream of political grandeur go down to defeat, it’s entirely possible that the prime ministerial ambitions of Lester Pearson will be swept away at the same time. This possibility springs from some rumored backroom finagling which has nothing to do with the Liberals at all. It involves a supposed understanding reached between Réal Caouette, the Social Credit firebrand, and Daniel Johnson, the glib and glossy leader of the Union Nationale. In return for discouraging his cohorts from contesting the provincial election. Caouette presumably has been promised the backing of the Union Nationale political machine in the next federal election. Should Johnson win this provincial election on Nov. 14. his support could help Caouette capture perhaps fifty seats in the next federal campaign—the same number the Tories won in 1958 when the Union Nationale machine was backing them.
THE KEY TO QUEBEC
The Liberals must carry Quebec to form the next federal government. So a Social Credit sweep, almost certain with the backing of a rejuvenated Union Nationale machine, could finish Liberal hopes of winning a majority on their next journey to the hustings. A Social Credit victory would also hurt John Diefenbaker, of course, but with only 14 seats left in Quebec he no longer has much to lose in that province.
The close ties between the federal Tories and the Union Nationale that produced such dramatic results in the 1958 campaign, didn’t survive the death on January 1, 1960, of Paul Sauvé, Duplessis’ short-lived successor. While Daniel Johnson kept his organization out of the federal election last spring, his presumed defection is still a blow to the Tories. It’s been generally forgotten that Johnson, then deputy speaker of the Quebec Assembly, was one of Diefenbaker’s most ardent supporters in the 1958 campaign. At St. Hyacinthe, he mounted a platform with the prime minister and told the audience: “People are raising their eyebrows because some Union Nationale members stand with you, Monsieur Diefenbaker, but that is only logical, because the Conservative party stands for provincial rights in contrast to the centralizing tendencies of the Liberals.”
Until Lesage swept out the Union Nationale government two years after this, Ottawa’s Conservatives had such extravagant confidence in their provincial allies that they didn’t even try to establish an effective provincial organization of their own. In the vital twenty-seven counties of eastern Quebec, for instance, the man who had been the federal organizer in 1958 was convicted of accepting $20,000 in kickbacks from Duplessis, and never replaced. The total organization strength in the 1962 election for this essential area consisted of a tiny office on Quebec City’s rue St. Jean, staffed by one girl.
Pearson’s difficulties in Quebec have not resulted from over-confidence but rather from a distinctly cool relationship with Jean Lesage. He had to wait to find out about the calling of the current election campaign in Quebec until he read a morning paper. Part of the trouble has been an internal struggle for power among Quebec Liberals. The “old-guard” members of the federal caucus, led by Lionel Chevrier, have insisted that they, and they alone, should have control over campaign organization in the province. Pitted against them have been the bright young men of the Quebec Liberal Federation who helped Lesage into office and have since been insisting that they should be allowed to run the federal campaigns in the province.
The uneasy truce between these two factions broke during the winter of 1960, when a group of provincial organizers went to see Pearson and offered their services. The Liberal leader thanked them, but made no decision. On May 3, 1961, the same provincial organizers took their case to the Quebec cabinet, to urge that Lesage put pressure on Pearson to make the decision in favor of combining the federal and provincial machines. Lesage was just as polite and just as non-committal as Pearson had been (Chevrier urged Pearson not to accept the offer, and Lesage was counseled against it by George Marler, a former federal minister of transport now in the provincial cabinet).
The subject was again thrashed out at a private meeting in the winter of 1961, just after C. D. Howe’s funeral, which happened to bring together all of the people involved in the dispute. In the fall of 1961, Pearson struck a compromise: he named Chevrier campaign chairman for Quebec, but agreed to allow the provincial Liberals to staff some of the important campaign committees. These committees, however, were not set up until February, 1962, when it was too late for them to become very effective before the June election.
Just a few weeks ago, the balance of power was finally shifted to the provincial Liberals and away from the Quebec old guard in the federal caucus. Chevrier has been reappointed as Quebec campaign chairman for the next election, but most of the executive power has been given to Bob Giguère, one of the bright young Montrealers who helped Lesage to power. This transfer of authority couid become decisive to the federal Liberals, if
Jean Lesage wins his election on November 14. With the two factions finally working together, and a powerful Lesage in the background, the Liberals would be in a good position to drain away Social Credit strength. Their main liability is not having a popular FrenchCanadian federal figure to lead the fight.
The outcome of the Quebec provincial election will decisively influence how French Canada votes in the next federal contest. If Lesage wins, it doesn’t guarantee victory for Pearson. But if Lesage loses, it could mean certain defeat.
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