The Tories assault a Liberal bastion

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 20 1984

The Tories assault a Liberal bastion

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 20 1984

The Tories assault a Liberal bastion

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Quebec City lawyer Gary Ouellet blinked once, then twice, when a visitor to his office handed him a cheque last week. “It’s for $10,000,” the man said anxiously. “Do you think that’s enough?” Ouellet, a longtime Progressive Conservative fund raiser, later declared: “I was speechless. It used to take us weeks to raise that kind of money, and I had not even approached this guy in the first place.” That kind of support, Ouellet and other longtime Tories maintain, indicates—despite some polling evidence to the contrary—that a Conservative resurgence has begun in Quebec, where the party traditionally has had to scrabble for money and votes.

In the 1980 general election Conservative fortunes hit a new low in Quebec: the party took only one of the province’s 75 seats. But now, buoyant Conservatives contend, their party is on the verge of its biggest breakthrough since the 1958 general election, when it won 50 seats under the late John Diefenbaker. Declared a cocky Bernard Roy, the Conservatives’ chief Quebec organizer: “I’ve said all along we would win a minimum of 20 seats here. Now I believe that figure is too low.”

Indeed, recent polls offer conflicting evidence. A survey of 500 Quebecers conducted after last month’s television debates by Toronto’s Thompson Lightstone & Co. Ltd. for CTV indicated that support for the Conservatives rose by 16 points to 38 per cent since June, while the Liberals had slipped 22 points to 47. The latest poll, conducted by Carleton University journalism students and appearing in Southam newspapers last week, showed that 49 per cent of committed voters in Quebec preferred the Tories to 37 per cent who favored the once-dominant Liberals. Still, some 37 per cent of Quebec voters are undecided. But the Tories are not underestimating the challenge they face: Quebec is a traditional Liberal bastion.

In 1980, under then-Leader Joe Clark, Conservative candidates won only 373,317 of the 2.9 million votes cast in the province—12.5 per cent. The Tories even finished behind the satirical Rhinoceros Party in two constituencies, Montreal-Laurier and Langelier in the Quebec City region, and in many ridings lost by more than 20,000 votes. And although the Liberals already have encountered a series of uncharacteristic organizational problems —including lingering bitterness between supporters of leadership rivals Jean Chrétien and John Turner and the complaint of many Liberals that the campaign has been

slow starting and plagued with minor problems—most believe their support is too deep to be dislodged in a single election.

For their part, the Tories are attempting to convince voters that virtually everything has changed. The bilingual Brian Mulroney, the first Tory leader from the province in the 91 years since John Abbott held the post, has been working to build what some observers have dubbed “Quebec’s rainbow coali-

tion”—disenchanted federal Liberals, supporters of the Créditistes and members of both the provincial Liberal party and the Parti Québécois. The collapse of the Créditistes, who finished second in five ridings in 1980 and failed to win a Quebec seat for the first time since 1968, has driven many right-leaning voters to the Tories.

At the same time, provincial Liberal Leader Robert Bourassa, a personal friend of Mulroney’s, has clearly indicated that his party members are free to work for either side—and there is a

suspicion that Bourassa would prefer to have Tories in power in Ottawa if his Liberals form a government in Quebec. In addition, Mulroney recently has aimed sympathetic speeches at current and former PQ supporters and has embraced three Tory candidates who voted “oui” in the 1980 sovereignty-association referendum. The Conservatives are also encouraged by perceived disenchantment with Turner.

Above all, the Tories are hoping to capitalize on a widespread feeling of disillusionment with federal politics in general, a flagging economy and high unemployment among Quebecers. The party’s slogan in Quebec, “Avec Brian Mulroney ça va changer” (“It’s time for a change”), is partly designed to remind voters that there are benefits for ridings electing government members. Indications are that the strategy is working.

Even Tories, however, admit that they will make few inroads around the island of Montreal, where the Liberals will win most of the more than 20 seats at stake. The Liberals have introduced two new star candidates in the area—former Quebec finance minister Raymond Garneau in Laval-des-Rapides riding and Lucie Pépin, the former head of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, in Outremont, where Finance Minister Marc Lalonde is retiring. Garneau, 49, is the likely choice for Finance in a Liberal government. Prominent Montrealarea Liberals who appear I certain to be re-elected in“ elude Justice Minister Donald I Johnston in St. Henri-Wests mount, Secretary of State Serge Joyal in HochelagaMaisonneuve and Labor Minister André Ouellet in Papineau.

The Tories are hoping for an upset in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine East, where journalist and Montreal city councillor Nick Auf der Maur is facing onetime solicitor general Warren Allmand, and in Lachine, where consulting engineer Robert Layton, a former vicepresident of the local Liberal association in 1972-73, is running against Liberal Stanley Roberts, a transplanted westerner and former president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Admitted one Liberal organizer: “If we

have trouble anywhere in Montreal, those will be the places.”

Outside Montreal many familiar Liberals will easily be returned to Ottawa. Among them: Chrétien, in the Shawinigan riding of St-Maurice; International Trade Minister Francis Fox, in Blainville-Deux-Montagnes; and Minister of State for Regional Development Rémi Bujold, in the Gaspé region riding of

Bonaventure. But Conservative organizers regard virtually all the seven ridings in the Quebec City area and the province’s rural areas as potentially winnable. The Conservatives are concentrating on those ridings where successful Tory candidates would be almost automatic members of a Mulroney cabinet. Among them: Gabrielle Bertrand, the widow of former Union Nationale pre-

mier Jean-Jacques Bertrand, in the Eastern Townships riding of Missisquoi; Roch LaSalle, the sole Tory Quebec incumbent, in Joliette; Robert René de Cotret, industry minister in the shortlived Joe Clark administration in 1979, in Berthier-Maskinonge; and Marcel Masse, former Union Nationale provincial minister of education, in Frontenac. After some early qualms, Tory organizers are now confident that Mulroney will win his own seat in the Quebec North Shore riding of Manicouagan.

Candidates from all parties report that jobs and the economy are the only issues that draw responses from voters. Interest in sovereignty-association, a burning issue in the 1980 campaign, has notably diminished, and all have encountered disenchantment, apathy and even outright hostility in the election. Said Allmand, who has held the WestEnd riding in Montreal for 19 years: “People are saying they do not find much to get excited about with Mulroney or Turner. My only solution is to run on what I have done locally for people.” Still, for some voters the local MP’s track record is not enough. In the 1980 election the slapstick Rhinos—they espouse policies such as turning Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street into a bowling alley—attracted 88,308 votes in Quebec and they could easily match that total again. Declared Peter Clerin, a 25-yearold worker for a messenger service in Quebec City: “I will vote Rhino because I’m not interested in a race between salesmen [Turner and Mulroney], I don’t believe government can do anything for us anyway.”

As well, many voters reject both the New Democratic Party—it has never won a seat in the province—and the fledgling Parti Québécois offshoot, the Parti Nationaliste du Québec, because they feel neither has a chance of electing a member. Declared Mory Browman, a 34-year-old who runs an electronics store in Montreal’s west end: “I might have voted NDP if they had a prayer here. But they don’t.”

Even so, the most ardent Tory boosters do not expect to seize Quebec from the Liberals on Sept. 4. Indeed, party organizers worry that they could win hundreds of thousands more votes across the province without winning more than two or three ridings. Said Roy: “It is not an easy thing when you are talking about trying to change the voting habits of an entire province.” Added Jean-Claude Dansereau, Liberal riding co-ordinator for western Quebec: “Quebecers feel we are the ones who have traditionally taken care of them, and that is not going to change significantly in one election. But we know we are in a real fight.”

Bruce Wallace

Mary Hagerman