CANADA

PLAYING THE FEDERAL CARD

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 21 1994
CANADA

PLAYING THE FEDERAL CARD

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 21 1994

THE BATTLE FOR QUEBEC

CANADA

BARRY CAME

As a harbinger of what lurks ahead, the exchange was telling. It occurred last week within the eggshell-blue walls of Quebec’s National Assembly, not long after Daniel Johnson finally settled into the premier’s chair once occupied by both his father and his brother. Rising to pose the first question of the provincial legislature’s first sitting since Johnson assumed the premiership last January, opposition leader Jacques Parizeau quickly mounted an attack. Noting acidly that Johnson’s federal allies in Ottawa were about to close Quebec’s only military academy, the Collège militaire royal in St. Jean, the Parti Québécois chief invited the premier to join him in a public march protesting the move. “Would he like to take a few steps with us to show his solidarity?” Parizeau scornfully inquired. Johnson’s reply was prompt—and barbed. “If I understand the leader of the opposition correctly,” the premier shot back, “he wants to maintain a military school in Quebec for no other purpose but that of creating his own army.”

If there were any lingering doubts about the dramatic nature of the coming electoral wars in Quebec, they were rapidly dispelled by that first face-to-face encounter between the two key protagonists. As both Johnson and Parizeau clearly indicated by their performances in the legislature last week, the next election—which must be held by November, but which could be called as soon as early

May—is going to be like few others in Quebec’s recent history. In place of the muddled ambiguities and divided loyalties that have characterized Quebec elections for much of the past quarter century, voters will face a stark choice this time around. Gone is the mushy middle ground of sovereigntyassociation promoted by Parizeau’s predecessor, René Lévesque, and the drive for a renewed form of federalism spearheaded by former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa. Instead, when they are finally summoned to the polls, voters will be asked to choose clearly between an independent Quebec, as advocated by Parizeau’s PQ, and continued membership in the existing Canadian confederation, as defined by Johnson’s Liberals.

‘The lines are being clearly drawn,” says Fernand Lalonde, a former Liberal cabinet minister and current party strategist. “It’s going to be an entirely different ball game from anything we have witnessed around here for quite some time.” Ranking Péquistes are more circumspect, preferring to echo the party’s publicly declared electoral strategy of ousting the Liberals first while leaving the question of independence to a subsequent province-wide referendum, which Parizeau says could be held two months after a victory by his party. In private, however, at least a few PQ strategists concede that there is more at stake in the upcoming election than the mere removal from office of a two-term administra-

tion, tired after nine long years in power, much of it during a severe economic crisis. “There are some of us who might not want to broadcast it,” admits one PQ planner, “but the issue now is separation, pure and simple.”

The Péquistes’ newfound willingness to freely use well-defined terms like separation, secession and independence is, in itself, a reflection of the new political realities in Quebec. It was Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard who set the pace when he frankly labelled himself a “separatist,” rather than the more ambiguous “sovereigntist,” during his visit to Washington in early March. Only days later, Parizeau used the same word to describe his own political position, something he has rarely done in the past. In the process, the two leaders not only rehabilitated a lexicon that has been close to anathema in Quebec nationalist circles for the past 20 years; they also underlined the polarization of the entire debate over the province’s future.

For like the Péquistes under Parizeau, Johnson’s Liberals have also been shedding the equivocal stance the party adopted under Bourassa. Unlike Bourassa, who elevated ambiguity to a political art form, Johnson is straightforward, even blunt. “I’m a pragmatist,” he told Maclean’s in a recent interview. “I like to get things done.” Despite nine years of faithful service in Bourassa’s cabinet, Johnson does not appear to share the former premier’s qualms about Canada’s constitu-

As the mushy middle ground slips away, voters must choose between separation and the status quo

tional status quo. Nor is he hesitant to defend the federal system—even at the risk of offending nationalist sensibilities among fellow Liberals. And in the three months that he has been leading Quebec’s Liberals, he has been steadily engaged in remaking the party in his own image.

To a significant extent, Johnson has succeeded. Few nationalist voices are left in either his cabinet or his caucus. Even Bourassa, who dominated the Quebec political scene for close to two decades, has largely disappeared from view since he stepped down as party leader last December. On the weekend, the Liberals staged an elaborate farewell for the former premier during a party policy convention in Montreal. But during the rest of the two-day meeting, it was Johnson’s influence that clearly emerged triumphant.

Jacques Lamoureux, a 47-year-old Montreal lawyer with impeccable federalist credentials, was acclaimed as the party’s new president. And in stark contrast to previous Liberal con-

ventions, resolutions prepared for debate by the 2,000 delegates contained no demands for greater political autonomy for Quebec, no calls for exclusive Quebec jurisdiction in numerous policy fields and no condemnations of the inefficiency and costliness of the existing federal system. Most of the resolutions, in fact, reflected Johnson’s overriding concerns by focusing on pragmatic, if unspectacular, ways to adjust the nuts and bolts of government. In a clear measure of the changed atmosphere, one Liberal riding association even went so far as to recommend the ultimate heresy of jettisoning the entire notion of Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada.

By stressing vigorous action rather than stale theory, the Liberal conclave was specifically tailored to maintain the momentum that the party has achieved under Johnson’s leadership. Almost from the moment he took office on Jan. 11, the new premier has attempted to portray himself as an activist leader. In just over two months, he has, with a

mighty boost from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, slashed cigarette taxes, virtually eradicating the once flourishing trade in contraband tobacco that was most widespread in Quebec. He scrapped a controversial proposal to move the venerable Hôtel Dieu hospital from downtown Montreal to the city’s east-end suburbs. In the face of resistance from Hydro Quebec, he gave the go-ahead for a longdelayed $1.2-billion power project on the Ste. Marguerite River in the economically depressed lower north shore of the St. Lawrence. And late last week, Johnson unveiled another new program designed to create 2,700 jobs through construction of a $407-million high-tension power line.

Recent opinion polls indicate that Johnson’s moves are beginning to strike a responsive chord among Quebec voters. A survey in late February carried out by the Centre de recherches sur l’opinion publique (CROP), a leading Montreal polling company, placed the Liberals marginally ahead of the PQ for the first time since last June. CROP’S pollsters gave the Liberals 48 per cent of decided voters, compared with 45 per cent for the PQ—a virtual tie given the survey’s three-per-cent margin of error. Similarly, a poll conducted by a Quebec City company early in March also found the Liberals and the Péquistes running neck and neck. That survey, done by the SOM firm of pollsters, gave the Liberals 44 per cent against the PQ’s 45 per cent. “The wind

CANADA

is shifting,” says CROP vice-president Claude Gauthier. “It’s still far too early to describe it as a permanent turning point, but clearly something seems to be changing.”

Permanent or not, the polls reinvigorated Liberal hopes. Coming on the heels of an upset Liberal byelection victory a week earlier in the Eastern Townships riding of Shefford, they fuelled speculation that Johnson may yet decide to call an election this spring. Technically, the premier can wait until as late as Oct. 12 to call a vote that would take place on Nov. 28. Before the Shefford byelection and the release of the encouraging poll results, it was widely anticipated that Johnson would delay facing the voters as long as possible. But those initial calculations may no longer apply. “I’ve grown convinced that an election is on its way much sooner than we think,” says PQ house leader Guy Chevrette.

Johnson’s Liberals certainly display all the signs of moving rapidly into election mode. After last weekend’s convention, the party planned to accelerate plans for nomination meetings in the roughly 60 ridings where candidates remain to be selected. This week, Johnson is scheduled to lay out his government’s plans in the inaugural address opening a new session of the National Assembly. In late April, Finance Minister André Bourbeau is to introduce a provincial budget. He has promised to introduce no new taxes—and

even dropped hints about selective tax cuts.

Still, the new polls disguise a potentially fatal liberal weakness. For while the liberals may be running even with the PQ in province-wide support, the fact remains that much of the Liberal vote is concentrated in largely anglophone ridings in and around Montreal. In mainly French-speaking constituencies, the Liberals continue to trail the PQ by a large margin. The CROP poll found Liberal strength running 16 points behind the PQ where francophones are concentrated, while SOM’s pollsters reported a 20-point margin. That means that many Liberal votes in anglophone areas are in effect wasted; most pollsters say the Liberals must be at least seven percentage points ahead of the PQ to win a majority of the 125 seats in the assembly. “The Liberals can run up massive majorities among the anglophones but we’d still be able to win handily with just the fran-

cophone vote,” contends Westmount PQ MNA Richard Holden, the party’s sole anglophone representative in the legislature.

The PQ may have an edge in the fastapproaching election contest, but polls show they still face an uphill battle in any eventual new referendum on separation. Recent support for independence peaked at 50 per cent in mid1990; since then, it has declined and now stands at 46 per cent of decided voters. And even in the election, Péquistes have their own liabilities. The most damaging may well lie in the party’s newly discovered penchant for labelling itself overtly separatist, as another poll revealed last week. In a survey carried out by Groupe Léger & Léger for the Toronto Globe and Mail, 57.7 per cent of Quebecers said that they do, in fact, feel there is a difference between sovereignty and separation. “In people’s minds the concept of sovereignty is a positive one, it implies maintaining a relationship with the rest of Canada,” says Jean-Marc Léger, president of Léger & Léger. “The poll also suggests that the word ‘separation’ is a very negative word in Quebec. ... It suggests breaking all links with the rest of Canada.” If that is true, then Bouchard and Parizeau may well have committed a grave miscalculation when they chose to abandon the semantic cloak that, until recently, served their cause so well.

BARRY CAME in Montreal