CANADA

THE FIGHT IN QUEBEC

PCs PENETRATE A LIBERAL BASTION

BRUCE WALLACE October 10 1988
CANADA

THE FIGHT IN QUEBEC

PCs PENETRATE A LIBERAL BASTION

BRUCE WALLACE October 10 1988

THE FIGHT IN QUEBEC

CANADA

PCs PENETRATE A LIBERAL BASTION

The luncheon meeting at the Country Club of Montreal last July was a reminder of the daunting challenge facing the Liberal party in Quebec in a federal election. Seated at a table in the club’s dining room were Pierre Bibeau and Mario Bertrand, two of Quebec Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa’s most senior advisers. Their guests: Bernard Roy, the outgoing principal secretary to Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Peter White, Roy’s successor. Ever since Bourassa had regained power in Quebec in December, 1985, Roy had sought the co-operation of provincial Liberals—and had established a close working relationship between the two governments. The summer luncheon was intended to be a sociable way of introducing White to Bourassa’s inner circle. But to Pierre Deniger, Liberal candidate in the nearby La Prairie riding and a member of the Country Club, who witnessed the meeting, that summit was an ominous harbinger for the federal Liberals. Said Deniger: “For many federal Liberals, the Mulroney-Bourassa connection makes their hair stand on end.”

The political allegiance between Mulroney and Bourassa is a product of the Tory leader’s determination to establish a permanent presence for his party in Quebec. Although the Tory landslide victory in 1984 sent 58 Quebec Tory MPs to Ottawa—out of 75 federal seats in the province—observers have continued to question whether Mulroney can sink Tory roots in a province that historically has been hostile to the Conservative party. Mulroney, having no provincial Conservative party in Quebec upon which to build, successfully sought the support of a variety of influential political leaders. In the process, he has severely weakened the Liberal hold on the province and put enormous roadblocks in the path of the New Democrats, whose support has sagged after peaking in July, 1987.

Two of the Mulroney government’s major undertakings have illustrated the federal Tories’ ability to appeal to a broad cross section of Quebec society. By signing the Meech Lake constitutional accord—an agreement that recognizes Quebec as a distinct society—the Prime Minister demonstrated a willingness to accommodate the aspirations

THE TORIES HAVE CONCENTRATED ON WINNING OVER THE INFLUENTIAL

CANADA

of Quebec nationalists within the Canadian federal system. And by negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States,

Mulroney won support from Quebec’s growing—and influential—francophone business class.

Both Meech Lake and the free trade deal are widely supported by Quebecers and endorsed by Bourassa. But weaving the Conservative strand into Quebec’s complex political fabric has been a far more subtle exercise.

Over the past four years, Mulroney won the allegiance of public figures and key political actors from a cross section of Quebec politics. Mulroney has brought several prominent members of the Parti Québécois into federal politics—most notably with the March 31 appointment to cabinet of Lucien Bouchard, who won the Lac-St-Jean byelec% tion for the Tories in June.

At the same time, Mulroney has succeeded o in neutralizing some federal Liberal power in 2 Quebec by recruiting talented and influential | federal Liberals from Quebec to work for the I Tory government—among them Montreal g lawyer Stanley Hartt, who served as Otta-

wa’s deputy minister of finance from 1985

until last spring, and lawyer Yves Fortier, now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. Former Liberal cabinet minister Francis Fox said: “Over a lifetime, Brian has built a network of people who he has been able to bring into public life with him. There are not too many people who can get a Stanley Hartt

to give up his law practice or a Lucien Bouchard to join a Tory government.”

For the federal Conservatives, those efforts appear finally to have paid off. Although Mulroney and the Tories slipped to a dismal third-place standing in most Quebec public opinion polls midway through their mandate —largely because Quebec voters were soured by scandals that touched five Quebec cabinet ministers — most polls now show the Tories in first place.

Should Tory support in Quebec hold through the election, Mulroney will have accomplished one of his key priorities. He won his party’s leadership in 1983 largely by convincing Tory delegates that he alone could win essential Quebec seats. The underlying message: not since Robert Borden’s Unionist party was elected in 1917 with just three Quebec MPs has a Canadian political party won a majority government without the support of Quebec.

To win that Tory support in Quebec, however, required a radical shift in the philosophy that Mulroney had articulated in 1983 during the Tory leadership campaign. Then, Mulroney had endorsed Pierre Trudeau’s vision of a strong central government. In fact, in his speech to the delegates at the convention in June of that year, Mulroney declared that René Lévesque would not get a “plugged nickel until I hear what he is prepared to do for Canada.”

Once elected leader, Mulroney began making overtures to Quebec nationalists. In an August, 1984, campaign speech in Sept-Iles, Que., written by Bouchard, his close friend and an ardent Quebec nationalist, he called for a constitutional reconciliation between Quebec and Ottawa. “Mulroney correctly read the new mood,” said John Parisella, director of the Liberal party of Quebec. “Quebecers were fed up with wasting saliva on squabble.”

Still, Mulroney was in search of a strategy to pull him out of the political turmoil during his government’s first years in office. Friends said that Mulroney’s lowest point came in January, 1987, when junior transport minister André Bissonnette was charged in a land deal—he has since been acquitted but has chosen not to run again—which became known as the “Oerlikon affair.” In the wake of that scandal, Mulroney instructed Roy to devise a new Quebec strategy.

Among those Roy sought advice from was Marcel Coté, a trusted economic adviser to Bourassa. “Those were the blackest months,” recalled Coté. “But Mulroney delivered the simple, coherent message to Quebecers that a Tory government would accommodate Quebec nationalists within Canadian federalism, and that the free trade deal would be good for Quebec entrepreneurs.”

By aligning himself with the forces of business and nationalism, Mulroney has built bridges to several Quebec political groups. The Bourassa connection, for one, paid political dividends last June when the Quebec premier endorsed Bouchard in Lac-St-Jean.

And many observers believe that it was Bourassa’s intervention—not the $4 million that the Tories poured into the riding prior to Bouchard’s victory—that secured the riding for Bouchard. “I get very upset when I read charges that Mulroney is trying to buy the votes of Quebecers,” said Roy. “Bouchard was right when he said that his byelection campaign in Lac-St-Jean last June was a coalition of people from different political orientations. We can repeat that.”

Among the symbols of Mulroney’s new coalitions in Quebec are:

• The appointment of moderate Quebec na-

tionalists such as onetime Parti Québécois ministers Denis de Belleval and Yves Duhaime to powerful federal positions. De Belleval is now president of Via Rail Canada Inc., and Duhaime is a director of the Bank of Canada. And Corinne Coté Lévesque, widow of the former premier, has been appointed a permanent member of the Immigration and Refugee Board.

• The appointment of Montreal’s legendary mayor, Jean Drapeau, as an ambassador to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a move that was applauded by Drapeau’s constituency of small-

business people and conservative Catholics.

• The recruitment of Benoît Tremblay, former top adviser to current Montreal Mayor Jean Doré, as a Tory candidate in the Rosemont riding—a move that will clearly attract support from Doré’s election machine.

• The appointments of some federal Liberals to high-profile government positions. In addition to the appointments of Hartt and Fortier, Mulroney also offered Fox a position on the board of Canadian National Railway Co.—although Fox turned down the offer.

Attracting that broad umbrella of political factions has left the federal Liberals little room to manoeuvre. Acknowledged Raymond Gameau, chief Liberal spokesman in Quebec: “Mulroney has been smart. But Quebecers will have to ask themselves whether a guy who was once a federalist, and who now appoints Péquistes to federal jobs, can be trusted.” But the Liberals are also hampered by John Turner’s own lack of an extensive network of Quebec supporters and by the feet that the Liberal leader cannot match Mulroney’s easy acceptance in Quebec—which comes from being a native son. Said Hartt: “The irony is that I used to be part of Turner’s kitchen cabinet. But John always talks about this great network of people who have supported him over the years—it is all a myth.”

The NDP, which is struggling to gain support in Quebec, has been frustrated by the way in which the Tories have reached out to members of the Parti Québécois—whom the NDP have also tried to court. But NDP chances in Quebec have also been hurt by a party regulation that states that anyone wishing to join the federal NDP must join the provincial party as well. That has discouraged many Parti Québécois members from working for the federal NDP. Said Eric Gourdeau, a federal NDP candidate who has attacked the membership rules: “The provincial NDP wanted to replace the PQ in Quebec after the PQ died. But the PQ is not dead. And until we limit ourselves to the federal arena, we will have the Péquistes as enemies.”

Mulroney’s strategy is not without pitfalls. One trouble spot could be the impending Supreme Court of Canada decision—which may come down as early as Oct. 6—on the constitutionality of Quebec legislation that prohibits the use of languages other than French on commercial signs. Whichever way the Supreme Court rules, Mulroney will be in the delicate position of balancing the rights of Quebec’s language minorities against the beliefs of Quebec nationalists such as Bouchard. And if the court rules in favor of minority language rights, Mulroney may also find himself at odds with Bourassa, whose government has strongly resisted federal incursions into language matters. But despite such potential disagreements, Mulroney has clearly been successful in his broad strategy: cementing Tory roots in Quebec.

LISA VAN DUSEN

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa with LISA VAN DUSEN in Montreal