When the 23 members of Premier René Lévesque’s new ministry made their way to their first cabinet meeting in early December, several had to be pointed to the right door by secretaries and security men. Going in, Industry Minister Rodrigue Tremblay predicted the topic would be “finances, finances, finances”—and eight and a half hours later, it turned out he was right. Later, the Premier announced that the first session of the National Assembly on December 14 will deal with a supplementary budget of $500 million to cover provincial expenses until year end. The meeting had struggled to take the final figure below the half-billion mark, down from the $537.5
million projected by departing Liberal finance minister Raymond Garneau. It was a sobering exercise, necessitating cuts in existing programs, and it brought the cold reality of the problems of governing home to the new cabinet. Even before the initial meeting, the first weeks of the new government were marked by remarkable caution and restraint. Aware of the dangers of letting expectations rise, or allowing potential disagreements to surface, most of the members of the new government have kept low profiles as they plunge into their new jobs.
Five days before the first cabinet meeting, Lévesque had presented his groupfirst to a televised gathering of dignitaries and guests, and then to a wildly enthusiastic crowd at the Quebec Convention Centre. The struggle ahead will primarily be to cope with the pressing problems of the economy, and to deal with the massive debts left behind by the Bourassa government. As Lévesque said, “We’ve inherited them, and we’re responsible.”
Clearly, the economic mess that the péquistes inherited contributed to the mood of deliberation in the new government, and is part of the reason it is proceeding so cautiously. As one strongly antagonistic businessman admitted: “On the business side, they have been saying all the right things.” For Lévesque has taken few risks. He has, with few exceptions, done what was expected in his cabinet—with an extra
element of insurance. He surrounded himself with a small group of senior cabinet members to form the priorities committee. This committee—already known as the Group of Eight—is to establish the sense of direction for the new government.
Chaired by Lévesque, the committee consists of two key portfolios—finance (Jacques Parizeau) and intergovernmental affairs (Claude Morin)—and five ministers of state: social development (Pierre
Marois), economic development (Bernard Landry), cultural development (Dr. Camille Laurin), planning (Jacques Leonard), and parliamentary reform (Robert Burns). Lévesque established the five “ministers of state” to give him greater flexibility and room to manoeuvre. None of the five—who are all bright and energetic—will have specific administrative responsibilities, but they will be free to do long-range planning, coordination and troubleshooting in their specific areas. With the exception of Burns, all are known as moderates on economic issues, and several are very close to Lévesque personally. (Landry was on his staff when he was minister of natural resources in the Lesage cabinet, and Marois and Laurin are close personal friends.)
However, despite the managerial spirit behind the innovation, there are dangers in the system. On the one hand there is the risk of alienating the operating ministers, or of creating the kind of resentment that Pierre Trudeau incurred with the injection of flow chart planning into the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office. On the other hand, there is the risk that the ministers of state, operating without departments or large budgets, may disappear from public view. This was the fate of Ontario premier William Davis’ policy secretariats, or “super-ministries.” According to Bert Lawrence, one of the first “super-ministers,” it was a galling, frustrating experience for a politician. “You are without your hand on the steering wheel, or the levers of power,” he said. “You don’t get reported, the immediacy is lost—and you drift out of the public limelight.” The benefits for Lévesque are obvious. Including the Premier, five of the eight ministers have worked in important positions in previous Quebec governments, Claude Morin as deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs, Jacques Parizeau as a senior economic adviser, Bernard Landry in the ministry of natural resources, and Pierre Marois in the ministry of education.
Although attention naturally focuses on the managerial team, several of the operating ministers may prove fascinating to watch. Guy Joron, the new minister of energy, had just published a book before the election attacking growth, consumption and waste in society. Joron, a former stockbroker severely criticized the energy planning being done by HydroQuebec (for which he is now the minister responsible). Another surprise appointment was Jacques Couture as Minister of Labor. A worker-priest who ran against
Jean Drapeau for the Montreal mayoralty in 1974, he was pledged to ask cabinet to raise the minimum wage to three dollars an hour.
Beneath the sombre tones of early moderation, there is some unease on the party’s left wing. Several PQ supporters in the labor movement were upset that Robert Burns did not get the justice portfolio he had hoped for (it went to a Lévesque loyalist and reputed political conservative, Marc-André Bedard), and that the left did not have more clout in the direction the party will be taking. Although Burns is on the priorities committee, his reformist energies will be directed toward parliamentary reform and regulation of party financing, areas that are not likely to unnerve the powerful economic interests in the province.
But despite these concerns, there was an overall mood of satisfaction among PQ supporters. One labor militant, after listing some judges and financiers who had reportedly refused invitations as candidates because the PQ wasn’t supposed to win, observed smugly: “Well at least the PQ formed the government before the real bourgeois got on the bandwagon.”
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