COVER

A standoff in Quebec

MICHAEL ROSE August 29 1988
COVER

A standoff in Quebec

MICHAEL ROSE August 29 1988

A standoff in Quebec

It was intended as a jocular declaration of political friendship but it had a somewhat desperate ring. Liberal Leader John Turner, in Quebec City last week to try to reduce his differences with Premier Robert Bourassa over the Canada-U.S. free trade deal, told reporters, “I don’t know how I could be any closer to the premier without being indecent.” But for Turner, the troubled relationship be-

tween the two Liberal leaders is no laughing matter. As the federal election nears, winning political favors from Bourassa—whose government is still overwhelmingly supported by Quebecers—may be crucial in the Quebec campaign. And the differences between the two men over free trade are significant: Bourassa has embraced the deal as a potential boon for the Quebec economy, while Turner has vowed to tear up the accord if he becomes prime minister.

Last week, Bourassa repeated his pledge that he would be “officially neutral” in the election campaign but reserved the right to speak out on free trade. Declared Bourassa: “If there are errors in fact concerning free trade or other things, I will maintain my position. Neutrality does not mean inaction.” As well, he said that provincial Liberals would have “freedom of action” in working for any party during the campaign. Meanwhile, Bourassa was only lukewarm in his endorsement of the federal Liberals’ five-point trade plan that would replace the existing free trade deal.

Advisers to the Quebec premier argue that unbalanced media reports have generated the impression that Bourassa secretly favors Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. They point out

that Bourassa’s endorsement of the Conservatives’ Lucien Bouchard in the recent Lac St-Jean byelection was more than offset by his urging provincial Liberal organizers to step in when a fund-raising dinner for Turner appeared destined for failure last spring. Still, Bourassa’s strategists concede that he may feel more at ease on a personal level with Mulroney than with Turner. In the coming battle for Quebec votes, that perception, along with the serious disagreement between Bourassa and Turner over free trade, may be enough to tilt the balance.

-MICHAEL ROSE in Quebec