CANADA

A new direction for the PQ

August 19 1985
CANADA

A new direction for the PQ

August 19 1985

A new direction for the PQ

CANADA

He is in many ways the antithesis of Premier René Lévesque, whose eloquence and frenetic energy stirred the emotions of Quebecers, and many other Canadians, for nearly two decades. Almost everything about Pierre Marc Johnson—from the measured manner of his fluently bilingual speech to the way that the cut of his dark blue suits disguises a slight paunch—seems calculated to exude the calm assurance of the man who is the almost certain choice to succeed Lévesque next month as leader of the Parti Québécois and premier of Quebec. Said Johnson in an interview last week with Maclean ’s: “I am a man who likes to project very carefully the consequences of things before taking action.”

It is largely because he does present such a sharp contrast to the sometimes erratic Lévesque, who will be 63 next week, that Johnson is the strongest of the seven candidates competing to succeed Lévesque. Indeed, many observers predict that the 39-year-old justice minister and son of former Union Nationale premier Daniel Johnson will win on the first ballot. Others in the field: three of Johnson’s cabinet colleagues, International Relations Minister Bernard Landry, Agriculture Minister Jean Garon and Manpower Minister Pauline Marois—who some analysts say may be Johnson’s strongest rival—as well as Lévesque’s former status of women minister, Francine Lalonde. In an unusual departure from Canadian political tradition, the new PQ leader will not be chosen at a party convention but by a provincewide election on Sept. 29—and again a week later if another ballot is needed to establish a clear winner. Because anyone who is a card-carrying member of the PQ by Aug. 15 will be eligible to vote, the leadership contest has turned into a frantic race to sign up new party supporters.

So far, Johnson’s well-funded campaign appears to be ahead in the competition. Prospective party members can telephone Johnson’s Montreal head-

quarters free from anywhere in the province to join the party, and the Johnson campaign team will then hand-deliver the $5 membership card. As well, Johnson has formidable political support within the party, with the backing of 28 of the PQ’S 61-member caucus—including 13 cabinet ministers—45 of the party’s 122 riding presidents and five of the 13 regional presidents. Said Henry Milner, a member of the PQ’s national executive committee who is a Johnson

supporter: “The blunt fact is also that many caucus members feel Pierre Marc is the only one who can win an election for us right now.”

Even Johnson, an intellectual who qualified as both a physician and a lawyer before entering politics nine years ago, may be hard pressed to do that. In the election that is widely expected in November, Lévesque’s successor will face a resurgent Liberal party under the leadership of former premier Robert Bourassa, 52, whose party has consistently led the PQ in opinion polls over the past year. Indeed, in a poll published in the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil in June, 60 per cent of the Quebecers surveyed said that they would vote Liberal, compared to 27 per cent who said that they supported the PQ. Moreover, the new PQ leader will take command of a party torn by fierce internal divisions and defections following Lévesque’s de-

cision last November to suspend the party’s independence plank for the foreseeable future. Following that decision, a total of 10 PQ members of the national assembly either left the party or crossed the floor to sit as independents, leaving Lévesque with a razor-thin majority (standings in the national assembly at the start of the summer recess in June: PQ 61; Liberals 53; independents 7; vacant 1).

A cabinet minister since the PQ took

power under Lévesque in 1976, Johnson has managed to hold a succession of major cabinet posts—including the labor and social affairs portfolios—while keeping his political philosophy vague. Johnson is more of a nationalist than a separatist, and an economic conservative. He describes his political beliefs as “leaning more toward having people agree on what to do than on telling them what they will do. I prefer to call myself a pragmatist who deals with each issue on its own.”

But it is that very pragmatism that has provoked serious criticism of Johnson within the party—principally over the party’s founding goal of Quebec independence. While some PQ moderates fear that Johnson may be a separatist in

disguise, hard-line sovereigntists ridicule him as a quasifederalist who is intentionally ambiguous in order to court both federalist and Quebec nationalist support. As evidence of his ambivalent stand on the issue, the younger Johnson declared in a lengthy interview with Maclean ’s that as party leader he would not renounce Article One of the party program, which pledges political independence for Quebec and economic association with the rest of Canada. At the same time he said that, while he sees no place for hard-line sovereigntists in a PQ led by him, he would welcome federalists because “you have to cross borderlines to be a mainstream political party.”

On the related issue of Quebec acceding to Canada’s new Constitution —Lévesque refused to make his province part of the 1982 constitutional agreement—Johnson says that he is ea-

ger to reach an agreement with Ottawa. But he insists that “we are not going to sign an agreement just for the sake of signing it. We will have to get what we want.” What Johnson wants is essentially the same list of demands that Lévesque put to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney last May—including exclusive

jurisdiction for Quebec over language issues, formal recognition of Quebecers as a “separate people” and exemption for Quebec from many of the provisions of the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Johnson’s willingness to sign a constitutional agreement infuriates PQ sovereigntists, who feel that he is

betraying the party’s most fundamental objective.

The five major candidates in the race have agreed to abide by the party’s decision to put the independence option temporarily aside, but there is less unanimity over the PQ’s economic goals. For his part, Johnson favors a reduction in the interventionist style that has characterized Quebec governments since the beginning of the 1960s and the Quiet Revolution. But while Garon and Landry agree and want to see private enterprise assume a larger role in the economy, the two women in the race, Lalonde and Marois—who put her ministerial powers to use this month in the leadership race by pledging increases in the province’s minimum wage and in welfare payments for people under 30—want the party to return to its onetime emphasis on social programs.

In the meantime, the PQ’s apparent shift toward economic conservatism and its shelving of the independence issue worries some of Bourassa’s Liberals, who believe that their party could be vulnerable to the attraction of a new PQ leader with middle-of-the-road policies. By the time Bourassa’s government went down to defeat at the hands of the PQ in 1976, Bourassa’s vacillating policies had made him highly unpopular in the province. Even now, noted a Liberal member of the national assembly, “it is hard to sell Robert to many people. And when you put him alongside a guy with the presence of Johnson, it becomes even harder.” For his part, Bourassa professes to be unworried. Despite the publicity generated for the PQ by its leadership campaign, Bourassa does not plan to change his own low-key style of campaigning, which for the past year and a half has consisted of attendance at regular organizational and fund-raising meetings across the province. His party, insisted Bourassa, is “ready for an election any time, against any leader.”

While both sides continue their election preparations, one familiar figure has been conspicuously absent from the fray. Since June, Lévesque has kept public appearances to a minimum, and he insists that he will remain neutral in the party’s leadership race. At the same time, he shows no sign of regretting his decision to step down. At a summer music festival two weeks ago in rural Joliette, the premier snatched up a baton and conducted the town’s youth orchestra and later smilingly chided reporters for ignoring him, declaring that “I am not finished. The number of good and bad things I can accomplish in two months is unimaginable.” But with both parties gearing up for an election, Lévesque appears to have already been almost forgotten.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH