CANADA

A CASUAL AFFAIR

Sensing victory, Jacques Parizeau’s campaign operates on cruise control

BARRY CAME September 5 1994
CANADA

A CASUAL AFFAIR

Sensing victory, Jacques Parizeau’s campaign operates on cruise control

BARRY CAME September 5 1994

A CASUAL AFFAIR

CANADA

QUEBEC DECIDES

Sensing victory, Jacques Parizeau’s campaign operates on cruise control

Jacques Parizeau is wearing white—a jaunty white cap and a white smock of the kind once favored by country doctors. He is dressed, in fact, just like everybody else inside the food-processing plant in the South Shore town of Montmagny, 75 km down the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City. And as he deliberately wends his way around the factory floor, trailed by a gaggle of white-robed media, it is obvious that the Parti Québécois leader is in no hurry. He pauses to munch appreciatively on a profferred slice of steaming tourtière, the traditional Québécois meat pie, while chatting amiably with the workers, posing helpfully for the news photographers and mouthing pithy sound bites into the ever-present thicket of outstretched microphones. Before his departure, he even finds time for a group snapshot with a bevy of female front-office staff, prompting one matronly secretary to burble: “He’s such a nice polite man, not at all what I expected.”

There was, indeed, something a little surprising about the election effort being waged by Parizeau last week. Despite the imminence of voting day on Sept. 12, the PQ leader’s campaign was remarkable primarily for what it lacked—any clear sense of urgency. The pace was leisurely, sedate even, more in the nature of a triumphal procession than a hectic rush in search of votes. Unlike Premier Daniel Johnson’s organizers, Parizeau’s handlers have taken pains to ensure that “Monsieur’s” schedule is never so taxing that he is likely to suffer the fate that befell his main foe last week, when the Liberal leader was temporarily knocked off the hustings by a bout of laryngitis. “We don’t have to dash around,” PQ deputy leader Bernard Landry remarked as he accompanied Parizeau on a two-day tour through the

Beauce region, a former Liberal stronghold southeast of Quebec City where voters are now leaning towards the PQ. ‘We’re winning.” Landry’s confidence was understandable. The latest weekly Léger & Léger public opinion poll, released on Aug. 26, showed the Parti Québécois enjoying a five-percentage-point lead over the Liberals. With the majority of the Liberal vote still concentrated in a few largely anglophone ridings, that margin is suf-

ficient to give the Parti Québécois a majority government. The same poll, however, indicated that nearly 60 per cent of Quebecers oppose sovereignty—up slightly from a week before. Those findings appear to resonate in the Beauce region, where the Liberals captured six of the area’s eight seats in the 1989 provincial election. Barring a dramatic shift in public sentiment, Johnson’s team will be lucky to hold even two of those constituencies. “Pm certainly leaning towards the Péquistes right now,” says Anne-Marie Lachance, a middle-aged housewife in the town of St-Georges-de-Beauce, as she picks up a carton of milk in a comer store. “It’s not that I like the idea of sovereignty very much,” she adds after a moment of reflection, “but I do think that the Liberals have been in power for too long.”

Lachance’s comments underscore what continues to be the most curious—some say illogical—aspect of the Quebec election campaign. “We keep getting the same contradictory message,” complains a frankly perplexed Liberal party organizer in the Beauce, who asked not to be named. “People around here tell us they don’t particularly like either the PQ leader or the PQ’s main plank. At the same time, an awful lot of them seem to be intent on voting for the PQ. It just doesn’t make much sense.”

Logical or not, the Péquistes are certainly aware of the widespread popular sentiment. Last week, several news organizations received a faxed letter on PQ stationery that instructed the party’s candidates not to discuss Quebec independence with reporters. And Parizeau himself displayed his famous temper on two occasions during his swing through the Beauce region when foreign reporters pressed the separatist issue. “I’ve been asked questions of that kind at just about every scrum or press conference—in English—since the beginning of the campaign,” Parizeau told a Washington Post correspondent during a stop in the little town of Saint-Damien-de-Bellechase. “I don’t particularly like it when we are trying to explain a party program, someone—usually in English—tries to open a sideshow.”

Parizeau’s annoyance may reflect the fact that internal party surveys are beginning to detect

QUEBEC’S CAMPAIGN: WEEK 5

• Federal Finance Minister Paul Martin waded into the Quebec election campaign by sharply criticizing the Parti Québécois’s economic platform. Martin said that the PQ shows a “total disregard for debt and deficit.”

A report released by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute said that every man, woman and child in Quebec would owe $20,888 as their share of the national debt if the province separated. The report also said that Quebecers would see their taxes rise by as much as 53.5 per cent if an independent Quebec offered the current level of social services. PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau said the report has “no credibility” and accused the institute of waging economic terrorism.

“As we get closer to election day, voters are less and less concerned about the sovereignty issue.” —Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard

what pollsters describe as a voter “softness” in places like the Beauce, with some showing signs of returning to the Liberal fold because of growing unease about the Parti Québécois’s separatist aspirations. In fact, lingering doubt about the wisdom of Quebec going it alone remains the one factor that may yet bring Parizeau’s victory march to a halt. Certainly, it is one that the Liberals will need to exploit to the fullest to have any chance of injecting some sense of urgency into Parizeau’s campaign.

BARRY CAME