Getting set for a political showdown

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 29 1985

Getting set for a political showdown

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 29 1985

Getting set for a political showdown


Anthony Wilson-Smith

Seated by the window of his ninth-floor room in the new J.W. Marriott Hotel, one block from the White House, Robert Bourassa pointed at the lowrise Washington skyline with a chuckle. “Every politician should make a point of seeing all this,” said the Quebec Liberal leader, gesturing in the direction of the White House. “It is so wonderful.” Then, after a pause, he added, “Right now, everything feels so wonderful.”

Bourassa, who spent two days in Washington last week promoting U.S. investment in and purchase of Quebec electricity along with a new book he wrote on hydroelectric policy, had reasons to feel “wonderful.” A warm reception in the U.S. capitol gave the former Quebec premier (1970-76) a lift on his most high-profile venture since his political resurrection as Liberal leader 18 months ago.

And with a personal byelection contest expected in weeks and a general provincial election due within a year, a new opinion poll placed Bourassa’s Liberals well ahead of problemplagued Premier René Lévesque’s beleaguered Parti Québécois.

Indeed, Bourassa’s Washington visit was aimed at promoting an issue that, he told Maclean’s, “will by its very immensity be one of the most crucial platforms in our election campaign.” His new book, Power From the North, discusses an ambitious $25billion plan to more than double the capacity of the James Bay hydroelectric project to 22,000 megawatts (page 61). That would give Quebec massive amounts of surplus energy to sell to northeastern U.S. states by the end of the century. Said Bourassa: “I am saying we should do this project for us for our good now but, more importantly, for our children and their children to come.”

But along with publicizing the hydroelectric project, Liberal organizers said they hoped that a warm, relaxed reception for Bourassa would contrast favorably with the bad publicity Lévesque

has received for several apparent diplomatic gaffes in recent months. In fact, the trip, organized by the American public relations firm of Burston Marsteller, was so tightly orchestrated that Bourassa had an adviser to tell him how to best color co-ordinate his wardrobe for television (in Washington, Bourassa favored light-blue suits).

A series of meetings with congressional representatives and senators mainly from the northeastern states earned Bourassa several formal endorsements. After one meeting, James Oberstar, a fluently bilin-

gual congressman from Minnesota, wrapped his arm around a beaming Bourassa and told reporters and Quebec TV audiences in French: “You must tell people to vote for this man. He has all the right ideas.”

As well, Bourassa’s plan for James Bay received the endorsement of James Schlesinger, the former U.S. energy secretary, who wrote the introduction to Power. In Quebec, traditionally one of the most pro-American Canadian provinces, one Liberal organizer said those endorsements “win us a few thousand votes right away and another 10,000 or so every time people see Bourassa standing in front of anything that looks like the White House.”

In fact, after a period of several

months in which the PQ appeared to be regaining ground lost to the Liberals, Bourassa’s party may now have all the support it needs. A poll conducted two weeks ago by the Institut Québécois d’Opinion Publique and commissioned by the newspaper Le Journal de Montreal, showed that the Liberals lead the PQ by a margin of 53 per cent to 28 per cent.

That result is likely to be particularly damaging to Lévesque, who for the past four months has faced occasionally stinging criticism from former and current PQ members. Many party members say that he has lost touch with the PQ’s

onetime centre-left roots and that the party lacks a comprehensive electoral platform. That criticism comes on the heels of the deeply divisive decision last January not to discuss the independence issue in the next campaign. Declared Gilbert Paquette, a former cabinet minister who quit the party last February and now sits in the national assembly as an Independent: “I belonged to the PQ when it was sovereignist and socialdemocratic. Now, it is neither, and the leader must bear the blame.”

Said Henry Milner, an anglophone member of the PQ’s executive committee: “We do not appear to have any substantive issues or stands to take into a general election. Perhaps we need a leadership campaign to reopen discus-

sion about what we stand for.” Party membership has now dropped to 106,000 from a 1981 high of almost 300,000, and some party organizers say this year’s fund-raising campaign, with a goal of $2 million, is behind schedule. In fact, some PQ members admit that there is enough discontent with Lévesque’s leadership that as many as a dozen ministers and back-benchers might not run again if he stays on. Said Jacques Baril: “There is no organized plot against him, but it is fair to say that there are a number of members who are awaiting his decision on running before they make theirs.” Lévesque’s own standing has been further damaged recently by several incidents of embarrassing behavior and by the media’s increasing readiness to play up his gaffes. Three weeks ago he shocked onlookers during a visit to a medical centre when he jokingly offered a cigarette to a handicapped four-yearold boy and he was also roundly criticized by the media for remarks he made during a visit to New York City in March in which he described the Chinese people as “jokers.” But veteran observers of Lévesque are aware that the premier has always detested protocol and has often shown a tendency to flout convention. What is different is that the press is less ready to overlook his slips. Lévesque, notes Graham Fraser, author of the recent book PQ: René Lévesque and the

Parti Québécois, “used to be forgiven because of his extraordinary other qualities. That is no longer the case.”

As well, Lévesque frequently has been rude and impatient with members of his personal staff, and has annoyed several cabinet ministers by taking over personal control of key issues that had been under their jurisdiction. Indeed, following the resignation of senior adviser Jean-Roch Boivin and several other top aides in the premier’s office last year, one caucus member said the 62-year-old Lévesque “seems to have drawn into himself—neither listening to or trusting anyone else’s judgment.”

Still, in the past Lévesque often has matched his reputation for unpredictability with remarkable political resiliency. Bourassa, who has known Lévesque for close to 20 years, is still wary of the political skills of his old nemesis. Said Bourassa: “We would be making a terrible mistake if we were to presume that just because René is down now he is also out. He is still the leader and he will decide for himself whether he stays or goes—and when.” In the meantime, Bourassa plans to travel to New York next month to discuss financing of his James Bay project with several Wall Street financiers. But, as Bourassa said, “Until we can get to an election, I make these trips as a private citizen with an idea—and nothing more.”