After a private meeting with his cabinet last week in the austere grey government building known as The Bunker in Quebec City, Premier Pierre Marc Johnson placed a telephone call to Liberal Leader Robert Bourassa. Bourassa chatted briefly with Johnson, who tipped his political adversary to an important announcement he planned to make later that evening. Two hours later the Parti Québécois premier strode into the ornate Salon Rouge of the national assembly and got right to the point at a news conference. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Johnson said, “I have asked you here tonight to announce to you that there will be a general election Monday, Dec. 2.”
With that declaration Johnson set in motion a campaign that promises to be one of the most remarkable contests since the PQ first campaigned in a general election in 1970 and made its founding goal of Quebec independence the prime electoral issue. The major difference now is Johnson himself. The new PQ leader, a self-described pragmatist, plays down the party’s original independence objective to court federalist as well as Quebec nationalist support. As a result, economic issues are expected to dominate this campaign. At the same time, PQ strategists hope that Quebecers will prefer the fresh leadership of the 39-year-old Johnson—who succeeded former premier René Lévesque as PQ leader on Sept. 29—to that of opposition leader Bourassa, 52, who was widely viewed as an aloof leader during his two terms as Quebec premier from 1970 to 1976.
In announcing the election, Johnson—a former Quebec justice minister and son of the late Union Nationale premier Daniel Johnson (19661968)—called on voters to “take on the challenges of maturity.” He added, “Quebec belongs to all Quebecers, regardless of their age, sex, language or culture.” But he made no specific promises and he did not refer either to his party’s policy of political independence for Quebec or his government’s desire to reach a constitutional agreement with Ottawa. For his part, Bourassa told Maclean’s that he will devote much of his campaign to attacking the PQ’s “complete lack of economic credibility.” Although both Johnson and Bourassa are economic conservatives, they part company on important specifics. Johnson supports Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s pursuit of a free trade agreement with the United States as a means of increasing exports from the province. By contrast, Bourassa is wary of reducing protection for the province’s footwear and textile industries. But Bourassa also favors more foreign investment, and he has proposed a massive $25-billion expansion of the James Bay hydroelectric project in order to increase power sales to the United States.
But regardless of who wins, Quebec’s new premier will have little room for economic manoeuvres. The province already has the highest rate of personal income tax in the country, and the budget deficit this year is projected to reach $3.1 billion. As a result, both Johnson and Bourassa say that they expect the private sector, not government, to be the engine of economic growth. Said Johnson: “We must recognize the sometimes forgotten truth that the state can only redistribute income, not generate it.”
Johnson’s advisers can take heart from the PQ’s improved showing in recent public opinion surveys. In the latest poll, conducted by the respected Montreal firm SORECOM Inc. after Johnson won the party leadership, 50 per cent of the Quebecers surveyed said that they would vote Liberal, compared to the 41 per cent who supported the PQ. But that margin, while comfortable, was down sharply from the lead of 33 percentage points that the Liberals enjoyed last May. Refer-
ring to the PQ’s recent advance in popularity, Pierre Bibeau, the Liberals’ chief organizer, declared: “There is a natural rise with a new leader. We have told our people to anticipate that.”
Many Liberals blame overconfidence, and a resultant lack of organization, for their last general election defeat on April 13, 1981, under Claude Ryan. But this time, said Bourassa, “we are as ready as we could possibly be.” The party has $5.2 million in the bank, and more than 80,000 of its 250,000 members have volunteered to work on the campaign. In addition, the party has commissioned several polls to isolate the concerns of so-called “swing voters” whose political allegiance could shift during the campaign. By last week the Liberals had chosen 114 of their 122 candidates. In the past month the party has also spent an estimated $500,000 on a slickly produced series of Frenchand English-language television ads, while Bourassa travelled seven days a week on a gruelling precampaign tour that took him into every riding.
Liberal strategists have planned their campaign with military precision. A team of advance workers will precede Bourassa at each area he visits during the campaign. One of their tasks will be to prevent malfunctions in any of the three truckloads of sound and lighting equipment the Liberals are supplying in order to facilitate maximum television exposure. As well, organizers across the province are armed with a stout looseleaf binder entitled Faut être prêts ( We must be ready), which provides step-bystep instructions on everything from handling press inquiries to proper canvassing approaches. And Bourassa himself will criss-cross the province in a 40-seat HS-748 twin-engine airplane, returning to Montreal most nights so that he remains accessible to major media outlets. Explained Bibeau: “Our belief is that there is no point in leaving anything to chance if we can avoid it.”
Still, even Bourassa concedes that his image remains a problem among some voters. During his six-year tenure as premier Bourassa was vilified for his handling of such controversial issues as the 1970 October Crisis and his government’s introduction of a restrictive language law, Bill 22. There was also an embarrassing revelation that his government tried to negotiate a no-strike contract over 10 years with the Quebec Federation of Labor at the site of the James Bay hydroelectric project. Since then, Bourassa has worked hard to rebuild his base among ordinary citizens, an effort that paid dividends when his
party recalled him from political oblivion in 1983. But in spite of his warm and self-effacing manner in private, Bourassa often still appears stiff and uncomfortable in public.
For its part, the PQ still lags far behind the Liberals in preparing for the election. After spending about $500,000 on the leadership race, the party is now trying to raise $2 million to fight the election. Johnson told supporters last week that the party must run “a Volkswagen campaign—meaning we must be inexpensive, efficient and lovable.” But an equally important priority is to find new candidates. Almost half the 80 PQ members elected in 1981 have since resigned, quit the party or announced that they will not run again. At week’s end, the PQ had chosen candidates in fewer than half of the province’s 122 ridings. Party membership, although it has rebounded to 152,000 from fewer than 100,000 in late 1984, is still only half of what it was at its peak four years ago.
Despite those problems, PQ strategists are confident that the goateed Johnson’s smooth, self-assured manner will lead them to victory. Party campaign posters feature large photographs of Johnson posing with local candidates, while the party’s familiar red-and-blue insignia is barely visible. And in an attempt to infuse the party with new blood, Johnson promoted four nonelected people to cabinet posts two weeks ago, all of whom will run in the election. One, External Trade Minister Jean-
— Guy Parent, infuriated some hard-line Péquistes last week when he told Radio-Canada that he is not interested in the independence movement and that he j oined the party a month earlier only because of his respect for Johnson.
Indeed, much of the PQ’s election strategy will be aimed at demonstrating that the party has shaken off its sovereigntist, social-democratic roots. Said one party official: “We must convince voters that, just as the times have changed, so have we.” The success or failure of that strategy will depend almost entirely on Johnson himself—a challenge he acknowledged last week. Said the premier with a smile: “You bet your life I know that if this is unsuccessful, the blame is going to be on me. So it had better be successful.”
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