December 13 1993


December 13 1993



The members of the milling throng are, as usual, in a surly mood. Quebec construction workers, they are bunched in protest outside a red-brick hotel in the St. Lawrence River town of Valleyfield, 70 km west of Montreal. Most are burly, many are hardhatted and all are eager to do battle with the slight, bareheaded figure in double-breasted blue who has bravely waded directly into their midst, seeking a dialogue. His quest is met by a rising chorus of whistles and catcalls, which soon degenerates into threats of violence. The workers, pushing and shoving, surge menacingly around the slim man who stubbornly stands his ground until rescued by a phalanx of leather-clad police. He emerges a little mussed but otherwise unscathed a moment later to shrug off the incident with a wan smile and a wry comment. “A noisy reception,” Daniel Johnson remarks as he straightens his tie. “A sign of the times.”

A glimpse, too, of the mettle of the 48-year-old president of Quebec’s Treasuiy Board, the man who is poised to inherit the mantle of Robert Bourassa, both as


premier of Quebec and principal defender of Quebec’s place inside Canada. Barring an eleventh-hour entry into the as-yet-uncontested campaign to succeed the retiring Bourassa, it is Daniel Johnson who will be acclaimed the new leader of the province’s Liberal party next week, a few moments after 5 p.m. on Dec. 14 when the deadline for nominations officially expires.

Soon after, Johnson will be be sworn in as premier of Quebec, setting a historical record of sorts by becoming the third member of his immediate family to hold the post, after his father, Daniel Sr., and his brother, Pierre Marc. The swearing-in ceremony could take place later this month—but in all probability Johnson will not take over from Bourassa until early January.

For all practical purposes, however, Johnson is already the new premier of Quebec. Significantly, it will be Johnson—not Bourassa—who will represent Quebec when provincial first ministers gather in Ottawa on Dec. 21 to discuss the economy with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. For weeks, Johnson has been directing the efforts of a transition team in Quebec City, quietly gathering up the strings of government power. He has assembled a prospective cabinet, a leaner, younger version of Bourassa’s ministerial team. He is putting the finishing touches on a new program designed to focus on two of his primary concerns: job creation and government downsizing. And he is busily engaged in an attempt to refashion his public image as an efficient but bloodless bean counter—someone who has been variously described by disgruntled former associates as “coldly robotic” and “warm as a tombstone.”

The reputation is not entirely deserved. It stems in part from Johnson’s reticent public persona, but it is largely the result of the role he played in the past two Bourassa governments. As Treasury Board president for the past 572 years, he has been in control of the public purse, charged with the unhappy task of denying colleagues’ demands for a larger share of taxpayers’ money in times of restraint. “I’m the guy who says ‘No,’ ” Johnson pointed out during an interview last week with Maclean’s in the Spartan office he occupies in the “Bunker,” the starkly modernistic government office block that sits across Grande Allée from the National Assembly in Quebec City. “I guess I’ve said ‘No’ to every member of the cabinet and every Liberal member of the assembly on more than one occasion.” He added, with a resigned sigh: “This is not the kind of job that allows you to win friends easily.”

But winning friends, or at least votes, is Johnson’s most immediate task. For not long after he officially takes over from Bourassa, the new premier will face the electorate in a vote that will be critical for the future of both the province and the entire country. The opposition Parti Québécois is in a feisty mood, leading the Liberals in the opinion polls, buoyed by the recent electoral success of their separatist allies in the Bloc Québécois and eager to defeat an administration that, after eight years in power, is betraying signs of fatigue. PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau has vowed to fight the election, which must be held no later than next September, on the issue of Quebec’s independence. As well, he has promised a clearly worded referendum on independence no later than 10 months after a Péquiste victory.

Johnson, in contrast, is an avowed federalist, a much more outspoken advocate of the concept than the man he is replacing. When he launched his campaign to succeed Bourassa in October, he chose to describe himself unequivocally as “a Canadian first and foremost.” He has since avoided broadcasting his position, largely as a result of counsel from advisers worried about alienating the moderate nationalist vote that is crucial to victory. But at the same time Johnson makes no attempt to dodge the issue when pressed. “I won’t disguise the fact that I believe the best interests of Quebec lie in continued membership in the Canadian confederation,” he told Maclean’s.

Neither Johnson nor any of his key associates, however, are willing to minimize the chore ahead. The Liberals could call the election as early as next spring. “It’s not a lot of time,” conceded Montreal MNA Jacques Chagnon, widely expected to be one of the new faces in Johnson’s cabinet. According to the 41-year-old Chagnon, Johnson’s parliamentary secretary since 1986, the new administration’s main priority will be “recapturing the public’s trust in the Liberal government’s ability to act decisively in their interests.”

Chagnon declined to divulge details. But he did drop a broad hint about the nature of some of the more immediate measures under contemplation when he suggested that a first step towards restoring public confidence might well involve something like a crackdown on what he called the “Mohawk mafia’s cigarette smuggling.” The flourishing trade in contraband tobacco, which flows largely through native reserves, and the Bourassa government’s unwillingness—or inability—to control it, has become a symbol for many Quebecers of what is widely perceived to be the creeping lassitude of the ruling Liberals.

Symbols aside, Johnson and his team are deeply concerned about other historical precedents, not least those that have been set by members of his own family. While Johnson’s father, Daniel Sr., and his younger brother, Pierre Marc, were both Quebec premiers, neither lasted very long in the job. Death cut short the elder Johnson’s term in 1968 after scarcely two years as premier at the head of the now-defunct Union Nationale party. But Pierre Marc’s example is most worrying. After succeeding René Lévesque as leader of the Parti Québécois in 1985, Pierre Marc lost the premiership just two months later at the hands of Bourassa’s Liberals. His fate was similar to those of John Turner, who took over the federal Liberal party from Pierre Trudeau in 1984 and then lost to Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives 11 weeks later, and of Kim Campbell, after she succeeded Mulroney this year.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about those parallels,” acknowledged Manpower Minister André Bourbeau, another key member of Johnson’s inner circle. Bourbeau, who is slated for a senior cabinet portfolio, organized Johnson’s leadership campaign and is likely to be put in charge of the Liberals’ election campaign. While prepared to concede the similarities, he nevertheless argued that Quebec’s Liberals led by Johnson are poised to exploit wellentrenched voting trends in the province. “It’s been proved time and time again that the Quebec electorate is fond of seeking a careful balance in the way they vote,” he said. “I suspect that the same is going to happen again. Having voted for the Bloc Québécois in the federal election, they’re now ready to even things up with a vote for the Liberals in the provincial election.”

Many opinion polls tend to support Bourbeau’s view. A recent Gallup survey, conducted in the wake of the federal election, found that 60 per cent of Quebec’s voters remain committed to keeping the province in Canada despite the success of Lucien Bouchard’s separatist Bloc in winning 54 of Quebec’s 75 federal seats. At the same time, other recent polls indicate that neither Johnson nor Parizeau currently enjoys a commanding lead in popular sentiment. A survey carried out by the Montreal pollsters Léger & Léger early in November suggested that the PQ under Parizeau would garner 48.4-per-cent support while the Liberals under Johnson would win 46.8 per cent. The same survey also found that Parizeau and Johnson are effectively even in favorable opinion among voters, with the Péquiste leader at 51.4 per cent and the Liberal at 50.6 per cent.

Johnson himself remains upbeat about his chances of avoiding the fate that overtook his brother a decade ago and Campbell in October. “We’ve got time,” he said, “three full seasons to prove that this government is capable of providing people with hope.” He said he intends to accomplish this by refur-

bishing both the Liberals’ image and his own. In one sense, the party he will soon lead is likely to co-operate, since as many as 12 senior ministers, the core of Bourassa’s team, have signalled their intention to leave politics. A similar number of backbenchers are expected to follow suit. The exodus can be portrayed, as the opposition Péquistes are doing, as a full-scale flight from impending electoral disaster. But it is also true, as

Johnson’s entourage maintains, that the way is being cleared for an entirely new look.

Johnson’s personal image, though, remains a problem. He is first to recognize the problem, as he pointed out last week while appearing on a television show hosted by breezy Montreal entertainer Julie Snyder. “I’m so happy to be with you because I have this image as someone who’s drab and boring,” he told Snyder, inquiring what could be

done to spruce it up. Snyder suggested that he throw a glass of water on his face to prove that, deep down, he was really a little “flyé”—crazy. Johnson complied. But he hurled the water not at himself, but at Snyder. “Is that crazy enough?” he laughed. It may not be the real Daniel Johnson— but it certainly projected another view of the man who will soon be Quebec’s new premier.

BARRY CAME in Quebec City