Quebec's Watershed Election

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 2 1985

Quebec's Watershed Election

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 2 1985

Quebec's Watershed Election


As his dark-blue, government-issue Pontiac Parisienne slipped along Montreal’s Park Avenue last week, Robert Bourassa nibbled from a bag of grapes, took messages on his car telephone and read from the policy papers spread on the back seat beside him. “When there is not enough time for everything,” observed Bourassa, “you try to do as many things as possible at one time.” On the eve of a crucial radio debate with Premier Pierre Marc Johnson, and just 11 days before the province’s Dec. 2 election, Bourassa, the reborn leader of Quebec’s Liberal Party, prepared for the encounter with all of his customary care. After arriving at his home in Montreal’s fashionable Outremont district at 5:30 p.m., he arranged to eat a light meal with his wife, Andrée, then study documents alone until 10:30, when he instructed his chauffeur to pick him up for his nightly swim. Declared Bourassa: “If there is one thing I have learned in 19 years of politics, it is to never take anything in it for granted.”

The next day Johnson appeared equally cautious. Minutes after the conclusion of the sometimes-heated debate, which was broadcast live on the provincewide Télémédia network, the bearded and urbane leader, clad in his customary dark-blue, double-breasted suit, emerged to describe the confrontation as “serene.” Added the Parti Québécois leader with a wink to the assembled journalists: “I did not bring my boxing gloves. It was more of a judo match, and, as even a white belt in judo knows, sometimes you go to the mat yourself in order to bring down your opponent.”

Draw: Indeed, in the course of the two-hour debate, which many observers rated as a draw, Johnson was floored several times. A trained economist, Bourassa scored points by making Johnson appear to have a shaky command of financial details. At one point, Bourassa declared that he was amazed Johnson was unable to recite the projected government revenues for the coming year. For his part, the premier led Bourassa to acknowledge that his plans to increase welfare benefits for young people were not as substantial as they had originally appeared. While some Quebecers who heard the debate rated Bourassa the winner, the onetime Liberal premier also appeared to offend some listeners by appearing to be both overbearing and patronizing, while Johnson won praise from some observers for his gentlemanly demeanor.

The impressions projected by the two men over the radio-early attempts to agree on a television debate foundered on disagreements over the format—neatly summed up the differences between the principal combatants in a race that was both low key and fraught with significance. As the campaign went into its final stretch, a series of public opinion polls showed Bourassa’s Liberals leading by between six and nine points over Johnson’s Parti Québécois. And for the first time since 1966 neither of the

major political parties debated the traditionally contentious issues of Quebec independence or of policies to assert the primacy of French within the province. Whatever the outcome, the election will be a watershed.

Confrontations: Both Johnson and Bourassa offered voters largely conservative economic policies and they extolled the importance of the private business sector in the provincial economy. Unlike the flag-waving confrontations between federalists and sovereigntistes of past campaigns, a major debating point in the current campaign was the dollars-and-cents issue of whether the PQ was too generous in the terms it offered to South Korea’s Hyundai company in return for establishing a $300-million auto plant in the province. That debate also led to allegations that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and many members of the Quebec wing of Mulroney’s federal Conservative party were favoring the re-election of the PQ.

Mulroney—who is an old friend of Bourassa’s—insisted that his government was completely neutral. “I challenge anyone to prove the contrary,” declared the Prime Minister. He added: “As far as Pm concerned I and my colleagues have practised exactly what we preached—impeccable neutrality.” Still, many federal Tories clearly were concerned that a Liberal victory in Quebec, following the Liberal accession in Ontario under Premier David Peterson last June, would help form the basis for a Liberal resurgence nationally. As a result, while some federal Conservative organizers were known to be working for Bourassa’s party, far more—including some of Mulroney’s Quebec ministers—were solidly in the PQ camp. Said Gary Ouellet a Quebec City lawyer who was responsible for the Conservatives Eastern Quebec organization last year: “We have lots of guys out there on both sides. But I guess we have a majority who just don’t like Liberals at any level and see the PQ as more bleu.”

At the same time, the federal party has refused to support the tiny provincial Conservative party that was making its first appearance in a Quebec provincial general election. Had Mulroney backed the Quebec Tories, it would have meant associating the Prime Minister with a defeat. Recent opinion polls have indicated that the party has the support of only two per cent of Quebec voters.

Comeback: With the polls running solidly in his favor, Bourassa—whose return to the centre of the Quebec political stage constituted a remarkable political comebackabandoned some of his usual caution. He told Maclean's that he expected his party to win “a minimum of 70 to 75” of the national assembly’s 122 seats. That estimate was supported by a poll conducted by the respected SORECOM firm between Nov. 11 and 19 and published in Montreal’s The Gazette last week. The survey showed the Liberals with 51 per cent of the vote and the PQ with 42 per cent. At the same time, an obviously weary and increasingly impatient Johnson seemed for the first time to concede the possibility

of defeat when he acknowledged in a Nov. 17 speech to party supporters that he would rather risk defeat than make campaign promises the province can’t afford.

If the polls are correct, a victory by Bourassa would represent one of the most remarkable resurgences in Canadian political history. On the other hand, if the PQ wins, a close friend of the 52-year-old Bourassa noted that the best thing that could happen to him would be to lose his own riding as well—“which would be a mercy killing compared to what the party would do to him.”

Defeat: Unlike the charismatic Johnson, who almost single-handedly restored a divided and dispirited PQ to life, Bourassa already carries the baggage of a humiliating political defeat. Nine years ago the Liberals, who had held office under then premier Bourassa for six years, held a 94-seat majority in the national assembly. But in the election of Nov. 15, 1976, René Lévesque’s PQ surged into office with 71 seats, reducing the Liberals to an opposition rump of 26 seats. Bourassa, who lost his own seat, resigned four days later as leader and spent most of the next seven years travelling, studying and lecturing. In October, 1983, he returned from the political wilderness and succeeded Claude Ryan as Liberal leader. Since then, he has stalked the PQ with single-minded intensity, visiting each riding at least once every three months and usually working seven days a week. Throughout his first year as leader Bourassa devoted almost all his time to rebuilding the party organization and raising finances to prepare for the election campaign ahead.

When Johnson, who succeeded Lévesque in September, called an election five weeks ago, Bourassa’s efforts began to pay off almost at once. With 287,000 members and $5.2 million in the bank—compared to 152,000 members and $1 million for the PQ—the Liberals entered the campaign with an immediate and significant organizational edge. Throughout the campaign the party polled an average of 400 voters each week in each of a dozen ridings across Quebec to determine its strengths and individual voter interests. As a result, declared chief Liberal organizer Pierre Bibeau, “We feel we can head off potential problem areas before they get out of hand.” As well, the Liberals say that they were convinced their manpower advantage would give them an edge in tight riding battles.

In Quebec City’s Louis-Hébert riding, Liberal back-bencher Réjean Doyon faced one of the PQ’s star candidates, Louise Beaudoin, the prov-

ince’s former delegate-general to France. But while Beaudoin had only 250 volunteers working for her, Doyon was backed by a force of 1,000. For its part, the PQ tried to turn its lack of numerical and financial strength into an advantage. As Johnson observed at the outset of the campaign, “We want

to be like a Volkswagen—small and inexpensive, but efficient and loveable.” Edge: The Liberals counted on their organizational edge to make up for Bourassa’s image problem with some voters. After becoming the youngest premier in Quebec history in 1970 at the age of 36, he made a successful beginning by launching construction of

the massive James Bay hydroelectric project. As well, he initiated the province’s first health insurance program and introduced measures that included a free legal aid program and environmental protection laws. But his uncertain handling of the 1970 October Crisis, when separatist terrorists carried

out two political kidnappings and Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberals took control of the resulting crisis, his popularity began to deteriorate. The controversial introduction of the province’s first restrictive language legislation and a series of scandals involving government relations with trade unions also eroded the premier’s

credibility with the voters.

As well, Bourassa tended periodically to leave himself open to ridicule by his opponents. Revelations that a personal bodyguard also served as his hairdresser proved embarrassing. Even Bourassa’s eagerness to be on good personal terms with reporters sometimes had an adverse effect. Although he was punctilious about returning telephone calls and allowed some reporters to address him by the more familiar tu instead of vous, these

gestures were often regarded with either contempt or suspicion.

Already distrusted in the English community, Bourassa ran into difficulty early in the campaign when he unceremoniously fired Harry Blank, who had represented the largely Englishspeaking riding of St. Louis for 25 years, and replaced him with a francophone,

Jacques Chagnon. Still, despite some measure of affection for the fluently bilingual Johnson, surveys indicated that anglophones would vote massively for the Liberals. One reason was that both anglophones and francophones respect Bourassa’s economic expertise. “It is true that people are not exactly jumping off

rooftops with joy about him,” noted Liberal back-bencher Clifford Lincoln. “But they respect his ability, and that is what is most important.” Ambivalence: The opinion polls revealed a curious ambivalence in Quebecers’ attitudes toward Bourassa and Johnson. According to the SORECOM poll, 59 per cent of those questioned felt that Bourassa was most likely to improve the economy, compared to 41 per cent who favored Johnson’s abilities. But 43 per cent of those polled

also thought that Johnson as an individual was best equipped to be leader, while only 26 per cent thought that of Bourassa.

In fact, many political observers said that Johnson’s smooth performance would save the PQ from a rout at the polls. Last June, shortly before Lévesque announced his retirement, internal PQ polls showed that support for the party had dipped below 20 per cent and that the party might win fewer than five seats in a general election. Following the party’s bitterly disputed decision last January to drop Quebec independence as an issue in the election, thousands of Péquistes deserted the party in protest, and

membership plummeted to only 87,000 from a 1981 high of more than 300,000. Many of those who left were veteran workers who had provided the organizational backbone of the party in previous election campaigns. Following Johnson’s election to the leadership, the 63-year-old Lévesque remained aloof and he vacationed in Europe throughout the campaign.

In the meantime, Johnson has quietly redrawn the contours of the PQ. He acknowledged during the radio debate

that the “dream of an independent Quebec will never leave the hearts and minds of many Quebecers,” but Johnson consistently played down the party’s sovereigntist position—and if the PQ wins the election, some observers suggest that he will try to abolish it completely (page 20). He has also given the party a new kind of campaign organization. In previous elections PQ strategists ran campaigns from the party’s headquarters in east-end Montreal, but Johnson bypassed the party organizers and brought in his own advisers with marketing and business backgrounds.

Support: At the same time, the party’s membership has undergone dramatic demographic changes. The PQ’s solid support in urban areas once gave it its separatist and social-democratic coloration, but backing for the party has now shifted largely to rural Que-

bec. That base of support, along with Johnson’s conservative and moderately nationalist policies, has evoked frequent comparisons with the government of his father, Daniel, who served as Union Nationale premier of the province from 1966 until he died in 1968. For his part, the 39-year-old Johnson, who once said that “almost anything can be settled by good will and negotiation,” acknowledges that his style resembles Mulroney’s.“I guess it is because we are both Irishmen,” said Johnson, whose Irish grandfather married a francophone.

In fact, the generally warm relations between Johnson’s PQ and the Mulroney government, with its 58-member Quebec caucus, appeared to support allegations that the federal Conservatives are anxious to see the PQ reelected in order to protect the Tories’ power base in Quebec.

“The problem with a Liberal victory,” noted Tory strategist and columnist Dalton Camp, “is that it would open up vast areas of patronage that would form the basis of a rebirth of the Liberal party nationally.”

Links: As well, some prominent Quebec members of Mulroney’s cabinet, including Public Works Minister Roch La Salle and Monique Vézina, minister for external affairs, made their preferences for individual PQ candidates known.

Still, others, like Small Businesses Minister André Bissonnette, had close links with the Liberals. Noted Ouellet: “The blunt fact is that for the best interests of our party I hope either party wins—by only one seat. That way we remain the only party at any level that has a true majority here and can say it speaks for most Quebecers.”

In the meantime, there were signs that Johnson’s eagerness to announce the federally backed Hyundai deal was not nearly as effective as he had intended it to be. Johnson claimed at first that the plant would directly create 1,200 new jobs in Quebec and another 1,600 indirectly, but the Montreal Gazette revealed that Hyundai had not agreed to buy its parts within the province. As well, Bourassa’s Liberals criticized the terms of the agreement, under which Quebec will give Hyundai a 400-acre site and $110 million in grants and interest-free loan guarantees. “There is every impression,” noted Bourassa, “that Mr. Johnson, in his haste to close any kind of deal before the election, has not made the best deal he

could have for Quebecers.”

Triumphs: Regardless of who triumphs on Dec. 2, there is every likelihood that one outstanding problem between Ottawa and Quebec City will soon be successfully resolved. Although Quebec has yet to become a signatory to the 1982 Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both Bourassa and Johnson have indicated that they are confident of reaching agreement with the Mulroney government. As well, sources in Ottawa told Maclean’s that civil servants in both Quebec City and Ottawa are effectively laying the groundwork for

further talks between the two sides. But the issue is not a pressing one in Quebec. As Bourassa noted last week, “I want to talk about the Constitution, yes. But if you ask me if it is more important than jobs and the economy, the answer is no.”

As the campaign neared its end, Liberals clearly felt that the wind was at their back. As a sign of changing times, more than 4,000 young Quebecers turned out last week for an emotional rally at Montreal’s Paul Sauvé Arena—the same arena in which the PQ staged its emotional 1976 victory celebrations. Later in the week Bourassa was greeted at an election rally in the Quebec City area by a crowd of 500

people singing the onetime nationalist anthem Gens du Pays. For his part, a weary Johnson showed signs of fraying nerves. Annoyed by a reporter’s questions, Johnson at one point castigated the journalist as a “chien de journaliste’’ (dog of a journalist). Later in the week, in a speech to businessmen in the Eastern Townships, Johnson angrily accused Bourassa of “endangering social peace” by making $400 worth of election promises—including pledges to abolish surtaxes on gasoline, auto insurance and personal insurance with a total cost of $168 million—that Johnson claimed the

province could not afford.

Stakes: The emotional stakes for both parties were high. As a PQ MNA acknowledged last week: “At this

stage, I could stand losing to just about anyone else. But not Bourassa, not after all this time.” Bourassa, striving to become only the second Quebecer since Maurice Duplessis to lose an election and then return as premier, was also fighting for his own political survival. “I and my party have come this far,” he remarked last week. “We cannot, must not, let up now.”