The Liberals’ strong showing in Quebec slows Parizeau’s momentum towards sovereignty
AN INCOMPLETE VICTORY
The Liberals’ strong showing in Quebec slows Parizeau’s momentum towards sovereignty
For a victory celebration, it was not much of a party. There was, in fact, something almost sad about the small crowd of Parti Québécois faithful who gathered last week on the broad Carré D'Youville beneath Quebec City’s storied stone walls. They stood on the square in a cold rain, never more than 100 of them, silently watching the results of Quebec’s election unfold on a gigantic television screen that had been erected just beyond the twin towers of the Porte Saint-Jean gate. Not even the announcement that the PQ was on the verge of victory elicited more than a ripple of applause. Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard did manage to rouse a ragged
cheer when his scowling visage flashed on the screen to loudly proclaim that “the dominoes of the federal regime are falling one after another.” And PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau prompted a longer burst when he confidently declared that Quebecers were poised “to become a normal people, with a country of their own.” But not long after Bouchard and Parizeau disappeared, the crowd, too, vanished, melting away into the September rain with scarcely a murmur of satisfaction, much less joy.
It was the way the election was won, as much as the rain, that dampened the spirits of Péquiste stalwarts last week.
True, the PQ had swept Daniel Johnson’s Liberal party from power after nine years, winning 77 of the 125 seats in the Quebec National Assembly.
But the Liberals had not been dealt the decisive blow that had been widely expected, not only by the followers of the PQ.
The Liberals confounded the predictions of Péquistes, pollsters and pundits alike by capturing 47 seats—and winning them in several regions of the province. That was sufficient to ensure a solid block of effective opposition in the provincial legislature. And it was more than enough to secure Johnson’s hold on both his own party and his role as the primary leader of the federalist forces in the far ! more critical fight to come—the battle to de; feat the referendum on Quebec indepen; dence that Parizeau promises to hold some I time next year (page 18). i And therein lies the principal source of ! Péquiste unease. When the ballots were
counted last week, it turned out that Johnson’s federalist Liberals had come within an eyelash of attracting almost as many of Quebec’s voters as Parizeau’s separatist PQ. Close to 4.9 million Quebecers were eligible to participate in last week’s election. Eighty per cent of them did, and of the 3.9 million who cast ballots, 1,749,802 voted for the PQ while 1,734,477 chose the Liberals—a difference of a scant 15,325 votes. In terms of the provincewide popular vote, the two parties were separated by less than half a percentage point: 44.7 per cent for the PQ against 44.3 per cent for the Liberals. For the losing Liberals, the razor-thin margin in the popular vote provided a measure of solace, not least because it underlined the uphill struggle the PQ faces in convincing a majority of Quebecers to endorse the idea of leaving Canada. “This sort of neck-and-neck result,” said Johnson, “seems to me to indicate the unwillingness of Quebec to enter the path of separation.”
That certainly was the view of federalists in Ottawa, who quickly pounced on the near split in the popular vote as a reason for optimism. “I think, short of a victory for Mr. Johnson, the results are very encouraging,” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien told reporters after watching the election results on television
along with several close aides, including chief of staff Jean Pelletier, a former mayor of Quebec City. “When the two parties got virtually the same votes,” the Prime Minister maintained, “it’s a good indication that Canada is here to stay.”
Chrétien moved quickly to add substance to his serenity. On Sunday in Quebec City, the Prime Minister was preparing to outline the government’s agenda for the next year, heavy with economic issues with not a single constitutional item on the list. He was to tell the Canadian Chamber of Commerce that he would best make the case for federalism by providing good government and getting Ottawa’s debt and deficit problems under control. Chrétien also tinkered with the junior ranks of his cabinet to increase the government’s ability to communicate with Quebec voters. He appointed New Brunswick MP Fernand Robichaud, a francophone, to the newly created post of secretary of state for both fisheries and agriculture. Both departments have key constituencies in Quebec that will be important during the referendum debate, and both are headed by unilingual anglophone ministers.
Premiers outside Quebec also emphasized the limited nature of the PQ’s mandate. Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow was among the most blunt. “I’d say the election result indicates one thing _ and one thing only,” he I remarked. “It’s a change "in government. Full Stop. Period. This is not a vote for sovereignty or independence. Full Stop. Period.” Ontario Premier Bob Rae even went so far as to congratulate Johnson for capturing so large a share of the popular vote. “I think he won a very substantial victory in a way,” Rae argued.
The financial markets seemed to agree. Foreign investors began to channel money back into Canada, boosting prices on both the Toronto and Montreal stock markets and driving the Canadian dollar up to close the week at 74.06 cents (U.S.), almost a full cent higher than it had been before the vote. Much of the activity was generated by American buyers, who, according to Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce currency trader Michael Holder, were “intoxicated” by Canadian investments in the aftermath of the Que-
bec election. “The market is looking at these results as very bad for the PQ,” said John Whale, vice-president of money markets at the Toronto-Dominion Bank. “They didn’t really poll many more votes than the Liberals and, if that was reflected in a referendum, they would lose handsomely.”
That may well be true. But it is also true that a political party grimly determined to take Quebec out of Canada is about to take control of the government in Quebec. Outgoing Premier Johnson is expected to transfer the reins of power to Parizeau on Sept. 23. Three days later, the new premier is to preside over the swearing-in of his new cabinet, widely expected to number no more than 20 ministers, almost all of whom will be as fiercely dedicated to the idea of Quebec independence as is Parizeau himself. At that point, the PQ will have within its grasp an enormous array of weapons to deploy in the looming battle for the hearts and minds of Quebecers. As British-born David Payne, the lone non-francophone to win a seat for the party last week, pointed out after emerging from the first meeting of the PQ’s new 77member caucus: “Don’t ever underestimate the fact that the responsibilities of government also carry quite remarkable privileges in terms of visibility and credibility.”
Parizeau himself unveiled a hint of what lies ahead when he appeared at his first press conference last week in Quebec City. When the legislature convenes in November, he said, a new regional secretariat will be created, composed of parliamentary assistants representing each area of the province, who will report directly to the premier’s office. Ostensibly, the program is aimed at bringing government closer to the people by allowing increased regional influence over decisionmaking. But there is, as well, an obvious political bonus in the initiative. By granting local authorities more power, including more taxation power, the PQ hopes to co-opt the influence of key local leaders in persuading Quebecers to vote its way in the upcoming referendum.
On that issue, Parizeau brushed aside suggestions that the closeness of the popular vote last week might tempt him to wriggle out of his oft-repeated pledge to put the question of Quebec independence before the province’s voters in an early, clearly worded referendum. Initially, Parizeau promised a vote within eight to ten months after winning an election. Last week, though, he indicated that there might be a small alteration in those plans but he reaffirmed his vow to hold it some time next year. “In 1995, there is going to be a referendum on sovereignty, with a simple question,” he stated categorically.
In public at least, the PQ leadership rejects the widely held interpretation of last week’s vote as a blow to the party’s hopes of convincing a majority of Quebecers that independence is a good idea whose time has come. PQ vice-president Bernard Landry, who will play an influential role in Parizeau’s soon-tobe-announced cabinet, reminded Maclean’s in an interview of the critical role that Mario Dumont’s fledgling Action Démocratique party played in the election. Dumont, the party’s 24-old-leader, won the riding of Rivière du Loup on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, the lone candidate elected from outside the ranks of the two major parties. Dumont’s party, running on a platform midway between the federalist Liberals and the separatist PQ, also won 6.5 per cent of the province-wide popular vote (11 per cent in the 80 ridings where it fielded candidates). “Dumont’s vote is a nationalist vote and a sovereigntist vote,” Landry maintained. “Add it to our vote and we are in a position to claim victory in a referendum.”
Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, it is clear that the campaign to win next year’s crucial referendum is already under way. How it proceeds will depend largely on the strategy that both sides in the struggle adopt. Last week, Parizeau moved to dispel reports that he intended to pick fights with Ottawa and the provinces in an effort to prove that federalism does not work.
At the same time, however, he did not rule out the possibility of conflict. “I don’t guarantee that there will be no confrontations,” Parizeau remarked. “I’m just saying that I won’t start them. I don’t want to oppose the system. I want to get out of it. I’m not interested in going on with sterile battles.”
Despite the disclaimers, there are storm clouds on the horizon. “The first fight is going to be about manpower training,” predicted John Parisella, former premier Robert Bourassa’s chief of staff and the chief architect of the Liberals’ election campaign. “The next is likely to arise when [federal Human Resources Minister] Lloyd Axworthy presents his plan for social reform.” Ottawa is well aware of the dangers. On the morning after the Quebec election, Chrétien called his cabinet together to remind his ministers to avoid inflaming what is already an emotional situation. “Everyone understands the risk that an attack could backfire,” said one of the Prime Minister’s aides. “No one wants to throw the first dish.”
At the same time, however, federal officials insist that they do not intend to abandon their ongoing plans for social policy review, tax reform and deficit reduction in an effort to avoid alienating Quebec voters as the referendum approaches. “It’s business as usual,” promised Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé. That vow may prove increasingly difficult to maintain in the months ahead. For when Parizeau and his team of dedicated separatists assume office late in September, it is almost certain that it will be anything but business as usual.
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