CANADA

Battling for Quebec

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH August 4 1986
CANADA

Battling for Quebec

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH August 4 1986

Battling for Quebec

CANADA

On July 25 Conservative Senator Michel Cogger, an intimate of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, had the pleasure of collecting on a remarkable political wager. His winnings: lunch for himself and 52 friends at Montreal’s elegant downtown restaurant Le Mas des Oliviers. The man picking up the tab was Cogger’s Liberal friend, Montreal businessman Michel de Grandpré, who had agreed before the last election that he would buy one lunch for every seat over five that the Tories could win in Quebec. Cogger estimated the Tory gains at a minimum of 20—and offered a lunch for every seat by which they failed to reach that target. After his party’s stunning sweep of 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats, a smiling Cogger joked that he did not think he could stand “seeing that Liberal face once a week for the next 53 weeks.”

Consequently, an equally cheerful de Grandpré settled the bet last week by acting as host to Cogger and the 42 friends who were able to attend. But he retorted: “At least this shows that we Liberals keep our promises. That’s why we’ll come back in the next election.”

In a volatile province that both Liberals and Conservatives regard as key to the next federal election, expected in 1988 or 1989, each side has cause for both optimism and despair. With preparations already under way to get the parties on an election footing, the Tories, despite the presence of a native Quebecer as prime minister, have plunged in the polls. Last week the Gallup Poll reported that 78 per cent of Quebecers surveyed in early July said they disapproved of the Tory record since September, 1984—compared to 60 per cent in the nation at large. As well, party membership, which

peaked with more than 100,000 voters in late 1984, has now slid to about 30,000. The Liberals also have suffered uncharacteristic organizational and leadership problems. One result is that the New Democratic Party, which has never elected an MP from the province

and has only 3,000 Quebec members, stood at 27 per cent in an Angus Reid Associates poll taken in June, compared to 48 for the Liberals and 20 for the Conservatives.

In fact, since the 1984 election little has gone right in the province for either of the two major parties. Senior Tories now privately acknowledge that the size of the election sweep itself was a problem because many of the new MPs, who did not expect to be elected, were not prepared for office. As well, said newly appointed Youth Minister Jean Charest, the victory produced high hopes which the party has found difficult to satisfy. Said Charest: “The level of expectation was very high in 1984.” Now Tory officials acknowledge

that even in their own “best possible case” scenario, they expect to retain only between 20 and 35 of their Quebec seats in the next election. At the same time, the federal Liberals in Quebec, stung by the magnitude of their defeat and still attempting to regroup, have

been unable to reach a consensus on the key issues of free trade and Quebec’s constitutional demands.

A crucial problem for the Tories is a shortage of recognizable representatives. While the Liberals have such well-known figures as former cabinet ministers Marc Lalonde and Jean Chrétien, most Quebecers know only a handful of Tories in addition to Mulroney. Some Tory insiders are advocating the recruitment of new political blood in the person of Lucien Bouchard, Canada’s ambassador to Paris. Bouchard, a former Quebec government labor negotiator with strong Parti Québécois ties, may run in the Joliette riding held by Roch LaSalle, minister without portfolio. The 56-

year-old MP may not contest the next election because of a heart condition. Alternatively, senior Tories say Bouchard could replace another longtime friend of Mulroney, Bernard Roy, as the Prime Minister’s principal secretary.

Senior Tory officials say they believe that the best way to woo Quebecers is—like the Liberals before them—by pouring federal money into the Quebec economy.

Consequently, Michael Côté, minister of regional industrial expansion (DRIE), will take a leading role in boosting sagging sectors of the Quebec economy. Said one government official involved in industrial planning: “You are going to see millions and millions of dollars pumped into Quebec by DRIE in the next two years.” As well, this summer Mulroney has made bringing Quebec into the constitution before the next election a priority. Quebec was the only one of the 10 provinces that did not sign the constitutional accord in 1981.

However, the Conservatives’ efforts in Quebec have been undermined by a series of embarrassing incidents. One such case arises out of 50 charges against Montreal-area MP Michel Gravel alleging influence peddling, bribery and fraud against the government. Other Tory MPs involved in controversy have included former environment minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier, who drew criticism in the House of Commons when she filed expense account claims totalling more than $64,000 after two trips to Europe last year; and Lotbinière MP Maurice Tremblay, who was convicted of assault, put on two years’ probation and fined $500 after breaking the nose of his riding association president in a fistfight last year.

The federal Liberals’ difficulties in Quebec have been less public but almost as severe, despite the election of a Liberal government in the province last December. The federal party’s initial failure to reach a consensus on Mulroney’s plan to negotiate a free-trade pact with the United States resulted in a low profile for the Liberals on a highprofile issue. A June 16 statement by Liberal Leader John Turner firmly declaring his party’s opposition to the gov-

ernment’s trade initiative helped clear up some of the confusion on that issue. But new problems could result from Turner’s endorsement last month of many of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s prerequisites for signing the constitution-including recognition of Quebec’s status as a “distinct society.” While Turner’s statements won widespread praise in the province’s media, they infuriated former prime minister

Pierre Trudeau, who has always adamantly opposed such a constitutional recognition. Some Liberals fear that Trudeau, whom one associate described as “absolutely livid,” may comment publicly on the issue.

The differences over constitutional policy typify many of the party’s problems in Quebec, as it struggles to find a balance between its old guard—many of whom retired as MPs or were defeated in the last election—and the need to attract new members. Membership now stands at 50,000, or only two-thirds of the target figure of 75,000. Some Quebec members still prefer Chrétien, whom Turner defeated in the 1984 contest for the party leadership. Chrétien has maintained a high profile within the party since giving up his Commons seat in February. As well, some party organizers complain that the determination of many defeated MPs to run again is hampering efforts to attract fresher candidates for the next election.

At the same time, no one seems certain how seriously to take the NDP’s rise in the polls—including New Democrats. Encouraged by the opinion surveys, party members are devoting unprecedented amounts of time to campaigning for a breakthrough in Quebec. Said national NDP Leader Ed Broadbent: “I think things will have to go horribly wrong between now and the next election if we do not elect a number in Quebec.” That view is even shared by some Liberals. Said Paul Martin Jr., the president of the CSL shipping and transportation group and head of the Liberals’ candidate search committee: “The NDP is not to be taken too lightly. There is a constituency for them that they have not yet tapped.” Others are skeptical. Said one senior Liberal: “With 3,000 members overall, you just cannot matter.”

The ultimate key to Quebec will likely be leadership. In that area, Mulroney, with his fluent French and Quebec roots, has distinct advantages. Still, admits one member of the Prime Minister’s Office: “Our own data show that people like him—but they still are not sure whether to trust him.” Turner, despite his proficiency in French and experience as a former Montreal-area MP, continues to struggle for popular approval. Says one adviser: “People trust him, unlike Mulroney, but they do not warm to him. He is not one of us.” If the present mood of discontent with both major parties prevails until the next election, the race may not go to the swiftest— but to the party that stumbles least.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with

PAUL GESSELL,

MICHAEL ROSE and

KEN MACQUEEN

in Ottawa