The day the elastic snapped

David Thomas May 28 1979

The day the elastic snapped

David Thomas May 28 1979

The day the elastic snapped

To break the chains of his smoking habit, Robert Burns had his ears spiked with acupuncture needles—unsuccessfully.

The better to manage his unconcealed relish for gin, he once suggested axing a hole through the floor of his constituency office for quicker access to the government liquor store below. But, caught in a profound disagreement with cabinet colleagues over secessionist strategy, the popular Parti Québécois minister found no solution but to '■ quit.

Burns’s presence gave René Lévesque’s ; government needed legitimacy within the party’s left wing and among committed indépendantistes who, like Burns, had sub-

mitted to the premier’s will for moderation. But disclosure last week of the parliamentary reform minister’s intention to give up politics snapped the elastic holding up the mask of unanimity that has hidden the

schisms within Lévesque's government and party. Now, atter the double byelection defeat of April 30 which gave the PQ its first effective National Assembly opposition under Liberal leader Claude Ryan, and facing a major reckoning June 1 when a full party convention meets to debate Lévesque’s pet “sovereignty-association" scheme, PQ cohesion is dissolving.

The reason is the failure of Lévesque and his so-far trusted strategist, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Claude Morin, to sell Quebecers on the need for independence. After Burns first blurted it to a couple of reporters in the assembly restaurant, Lévesque confirmed last week that a referendum held now would be a defeat for the government. The premier claimed the PQ has not gained support because it has been waiting until the federal election is past before starting the hard sell: “We have mothballed our political perspective

of the future but, once we can begin to explain it, I am convinced we will win the referendum.” That was an oblique repudiation of his own earlier insistence that the PQ option is already clear.

To preserve party unity, the premier may choose to lose a clear referendum on political independence rather than risk more open revolt provoked by dissatisfaction with the semantic shell game of sovereignty-association, true confederation, renegotiated pact and other slogans of the soft sell. Whatever the wording, it increasingly appears that the government is likely to hold the vote next fall to give it time to recover from a defeat before an election in 1980. The premier promised referendum timing will be known before the end of June. Certainly, the month will mark the end of the phoney war as the PQ scrambles to take by assault what it failed to filch by stealth

David Thomas