In the years following his breathtaking Conservative election sweep of 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker sometimes called on a bright and well-connected Laval university law student named Brian Mulroney for advice on Quebec issues. With the help of Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis, Diefenbaker’s Tories had won an unprecedented 50 seats in a province that was traditionally a Liberal bastion. But Mulroney’s words to the Chief about Quebec’s growing political aspirations had little effect, and by 1963, after the Diefenbaker government fell to Lester Pearson’s Liberals, only eight of those 50 Tory MPs remained in the House of Commons. As author Peter C. Newman noted in his 1973 book on the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power. “It was largely because Mulroney’s advice went unheeded that the Tories lost the confidence of Quebec.”
Now, 16 months into his own mandate as Prime Minister—the result of a second historic sweep that sent 58 Quebec Tories to Ottawa—Mulroney faces a series of problems strikingly similar to those encountered by Diefenbaker. The most serious: the recurring complaint that Quebecers—and, in particular, Montrealers—lack influence in key economic portfolios in the Mulroney cabinet. The complaints gained strength—and credence—last month when the government decided to allow British-owned Ultramar Canada Ltd. to shut down an east-end Montreal oil refinery as part of its acquisition of Gulf Canada Ltd.’s assets in Quebec and the Maritimes. The Ultramar affair led to the resignation of Quebec cabinet minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier and angered several Montreal-area MPs. Last week, as the controversy continued, Terrebonne MP Robert Toupin indicated that he might defect from the Tories because of the refinery closure.
The Conservatives also face a major threat in Quebec from the resurgent Liberals, who regained power provincially under Robert Bourassa in December. A Globe and Mail opinion poll showed the federal Liberals comfortably ahead of the Tories in Quebec, by 44 per cent to 33. Combined with the furore over the Ultramar affair, the poll raised fears among some Tories that the cornerstone of Mulroney’s political strategy—to avoid Diefenbaker’s mistake and hold Quebec in the next federal election—is in jeopardy. Said Marcel Danis, MP for the Montreal area riding of Verchères: “The Gulf closing is an economic disaster for the east end [of the city]. Now we must make sure that it does not become a political disaster for our party.”
The Tory slide in Quebec is a factor in the decline in the party’s national popularity. A Gallup survey taken in December and released last week placed the Liberals ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since Mulroney’s September, 1984, election victory. Although the Liberal edge—38 per cent to 37 for the Tories—was negligible, it showed a steep decline from the 39-point lead the Conservatives held one month after the 1984 election. Trying to capitalize on Mulroney’s Quebec difficulties, Liberal Leader John Turner summoned a Thursday meeting of the Quebec Liberal caucus in Montreal. Afterward, Turner said that the poll reflected a public feeling that the government “has made monumental gaffes”—including allowing the Gulf refinery to close.
For his part, Mulroney, who held three days of meetings last week with cabinet ministers at Meech Lake, Que., said that fluctuations in popularity were normal in politics but acknowledged: “We have a lot of selling to do” before the next election, due by 1989.
With Parliament set to resume this week, Mulroney faced the task of placating his restive Quebec caucus. The Prime Minister’s principal challenges: to persuade Montrealers that his economic policies do not unduly penalize the already troubled industrial sector in the city and to counter suggestions that economic decisions affecting Quebec I were being made by ministers from outside the province. But Mulroney downplayed suggestions of a revolt brewing in his Quebec caucus. Said Mulroney: “The fact that a Conservative MP speaks out on an issue vital for Montreal is not a sign of weakness.” In advance of a meeting of the full cabinet last Friday, the prime minister also confirmed growing speculation that a “modest” cabinet shuffle was being planned.
The speculation centred on a promotion for Consumer Affairs Minister Michel Côté, a former accountant from Quebec City, to the key economic portfolio of regional industrial expansion, now held by Sinclair Stevens, the powerful Ontario minister. According to one scenario, Stevens would then take over at Treasury Board from Robert de Cotret. A Quebecer and a major figure in the cabinet of then-prime minister Joe Clark in 1979, de Cotret’s lacklustre performance at Treasury Board has been blamed on personal problems. Sources speculate that he may be demoted—or leave government office. The changes, Tory insiders said, would allow Côté to act as Quebec lieutenant for Mulroney on economic matters, alongside Public Works Minister Roch La Salle, who was assigned last summer to strengthen the Tory electoral apparatus in Quebec.
A cabinet rearrangement, however, was unlikely to erase the anger over the Ultramar issue. Freshmen Montreal MPs Carole Jacques, Vincent Della Noce and Robert Toupin lobbied hard to save the Gulf refinery and its 433 jobs. But two days after Christmas Stevens flew to Montreal and, without the presence of a Montreal cabinet minister, announced that Investment Canada had approved Ultramar’s purchase of Gulf properties in Eastern Canada. Ultramar, which already operated a refinery in Quebec, had insisted on closing the Montreal plant. Within days Blais-Grenier had resigned, and Jacques and Toupin were “reconsidering their political future.”
After a holiday in Acapulco, Jacques announced last week that she would stay in the Tory caucus. Duvernay MP Della Noce also tempered his comments, declaring that he is “95 per cent” in agreement with the government’s decision. His change of attitude followed a meeting with Stevens and a call from Bernard Roy, Mulroney’s chief of staff, who told him to “be careful.” But Toupin’s future is undecided. “I may already be past the point of no return,” he told Maclean’s. If he leaves the party, Toupin said he would sit as an independent, although a senior Liberal official told Maclean ’s that Toupin, a 36-year-old notary, had discussed joining the party with at least one Montreal Liberal MP. An aide to Turner, however, said that the Liberals were reluctant to accept Toupin immediately, adding, “It would be better if he sits as an Independent for six or eight months and then maybe comes over to us.”
Rejecting the arguments of critics, Mulroney supporters said the controversy reflected the political inexperience of members of the Quebec caucus. The province, Mulroney aides insisted, had in fact done unusually well in defending its interests in cabinet. On the same day he revealed that the Gulf refinery would close, Stevens announced that Ottawa will provide $55 million in aid for Montreal’s troubled Petromont chemical plant. And last spring, after Stevens had refused a grant to upgrade Domtar’s aging paper mill near Sherbrooke, the Quebec caucus convinced Mulroney to come up with funds to pay for the interest on a $150-million loan for the company.
Indeed, in sheer numbers Quebec is strongly represented in the cabinet. While only three of the 58 Tory MPs elected in 1984 claimed previous parliamentary experience, Mulroney named 10 of them to cabinet. In addition, three Quebecers—Communications Minister Marcel Masse, Côté and de Cotret— joined the powerful 16-member priorities and planning committee.
Another concern for Mulroney arose from indications that Quebec’s Liberal government might yet succeed in saving the refinery from closing—dealing the Tories a major embarrassment. Premier Robert Bourassa’s aides were trying to arrange the sale of the facility to Quebec’s Gaz Métropolitain Inc. and unnamed U.S investors, rather than close it outright. At the same time, the Federal Court of Canada is scheduled to hear arguments this week on whether to review the purchase agreement.
With strong Liberal governments in place in both Quebec and Ontario—and momentum clearly running against their party—the Conservatives face a difficult task in building a firm political base in Quebec. The party’s 1984 success was produced by a ragtag alliance of disgruntled Liberals, right-wing Union Nationale supporters and Parti Québécois workers seeking any alternative to the Liberal party. In Ultramar’s wake, Mulroney—once sought out by Diefenbaker for advice about Quebec—will face a major challenge in keeping his coalition together.
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