COVER

In search of a savior

The Liberals are in need of rejuvenation

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 16 1998
COVER

In search of a savior

The Liberals are in need of rejuvenation

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 16 1998

In search of a savior

The Liberals are in need of rejuvenation

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

In the end, perhaps nothing became Daniel Johnson in political life so much as the manner in which he chose to leave it. As recently as midFebruary, the leader of the Quebec Liberal party was personally involved in filling key organizational positions for a provincial election campaign expected as early as this spring. Johnson’s support in caucus, though not enthusiastic, was solid, and his mood upbeat. Then, advisers showed him the results of a survey by the liberals’ pollster, Montreal-based Créatec.

It suggested that if an election were held soon, the Liberals would drop from 47 seats in the 125-seat national assembly to about 29. Worse, the remaining Liberal rump in the legislature would consist largely of non-francophone members—hardly the image the party would want to project as the leading federalist voice in the runup to a third referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Johnson brooded, then went skiing with his wife, Suzanne Marcii, in the resort town of St-Sauveur. On Saturday,

Feb. 28, he invited a half-dozen supporters to a meeting at 3 p.m. the following day in his office in Montreal’s downtown Place Ville Marie complex. His message: “It is time for me to go.” Said one participant,

Jacques Chagnon, the caucus whip: “The more I reflected, the more I respected his logic—and brilliant timing.”

Who comes next? The reason Johnson gave for resigning was that the rejuvenated Liberals, under a new leader, could

win the next election, and stop the Parti Québécois from holding another referendum. In doing so, he also took a high-stakes gamble: he, and most other federalists, are betting heavily that they can pressure federal Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest into succeeding him, and provincial Liberals wasted no time making their support for Charest clear. ‘The day after Daniel resigned, I was on the phone to Charest’s office, encouraging him to run,” said Christos Sirros, a veteran MNA and former cabinet minister who also attended the meeting with Johnson. “The phones are ringing off the hook at my office with people saying the same thing.” Other Liberals expressed the view that despite Charest’s repeated assertions that he does not want the job, he will—and must—take it. “With Charest, everything is possible—an election win, no referendum, new relations with the rest of the country,” said Chagnon. “With-

out him, well, we must say we face some considerable challenges.” Even if they lose the election, but hold the PQ’s overall total of the vote to less than 45 per cent, that might be enough to discourage sovereigntists from staging another referendum with such a low level of support. To do that without Charest would require finding someone else with the necessary enthusiasm, credibility and convictions to pose a compelling alternative to Premier Lucien Bouchard. Most of the names suggested from outside the Liberal caucus so far are either not well known, or have already said they are not interested—among them federal Human Resources Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Serge Savard, the former hockey star who has become one of Quebec’s most influential business figures. Within caucus, the two most likely candidates—former cabinet ministers Pierre Paradis and Liza Frulla—have distinct liabilities. Paradis, 47, who represents a rural riding, is skilled, tough, respected and feared by other Liberals, but he would likely be intellectually and rhetorically overmatched against the charismatic Bouchard.

Frulla, 48, is telegenic and one of the party’s best orators, but is almost unknown outside Montreal—and even Liberals say they do not know where she stands on many issues. Quebec-born but of Italian descent, Frulla’s candidacy—coupled with the fact she is a woman—would mark two potential firsts in Quebec politics if she became leader.

No matter who becomes the next leader at the convention, expected in mid-June, he or she will inherit a party that has appeared tired, divided and dispirited in recent years. The troubles exist on many fronts, and with an election now expected this fall, a new leader will have to work quickly to fix them. And there is, of course, the Bouchard factor: Liberals acknowledge that, almost two years after replacing Jacques Parizeau, the premier remains a formidable opponent.

“We must never make the mistake of underestimating the exceptional political qualities of that man,” says John Parisella, a key Liberal organizer and former chief of staff to both Johnson and Robert Bourassa.

Some problems have bedevilled the Liberals for several decades. Most significantly, the party is sharply divided in its approach to constitutional issues. On one side are anglophone and ethnic supporters in the Montreal area—who tend to be traditional federalists. On the other are more nationalistic francophone supporters from the rest of the province. Says Parisella: ‘The key for any successful Liberal leader is to understand that while all sovereigntists are nationalists, not all nationalists are sovereigntists—and the ones who are not are the ones we have to win over to form a government.” But attempts to do so have often split the party, and led to problems with federal Liberals. When the federal government decided to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on whether Quebec has the right to unilat-

erally secede, Johnson criticized the decision without consulting his caucus or his federal counterparts. That step infuriated both the federal Liberals and some provincial members.

The Liberals have no choice, though, but to reach out. The party’s core of support is on the island of Montreal, which is a melting pot of different ethnic and language groups. In Sirros’s inner-city riding, for one, more than 100 languages are spoken. The Liberals win such ridings with huge majorities. But more than two-thirds of the province’s constituencies lie elsewhere, in places that overwhelmingly reflect Quebec’s traditional white, Roman Catholic, French-speaking rural roots. “Everyone refers to the French and English as the two solitudes of Quebec,” says John Ciaccia, a Montreal-area MNA who is the dean of the national assembly, with 25 years service. “But the real two solitudes are Montreal versus the rest of the province.” Because of that split, and the huge margin of Liberal victories in Montreal, it is a given among political strategists that the Liberals must attract at least seven per cent more of the popular vote to win a majority of seats.

But another difficulty is that many of the Liberals’ most effective MNAs are anglophone or allophone (people of neither French

‘With Jean Charest, everything is possible’ nor English origin), since it is easiest to attract highly qualified candidates in ridings where victory is most certain. That effectively reduces the pool of experienced leadership candidates. “For an anglophone MNA in Quebec, you must accept that you will never be able to aspire to the highest position in the province,” notes Montrealarea MNA Russell Copeman, 37. “Just as, I suppose, a francophone is not going to become premier of Alberta.”

In fact, while Copeman himself does not have sufficient profile, in another time and place, the 51-year-old Parisella might have seemed a textbook leadership candidate. Well-groomed, articulate in both languages, a veteran of more than a decade working at the highest levels of the party, and highly respected and liked in all political circles, Parisella is a successful executive with an advertising firm in Montreal. But, he said last week, “the political context is such that this is not really something for an anglophone such as myself to consider at this time.” The irony is that if Charest—whose late mother was an anglophone and whose name is listed on his birth certificate as “John James Charest”—becomes leader, he would be the third consecutive Liberal leader, after Johnson and Claude Ryan, of mixed francophone and Irish extraction. The difference is that those three men all identify themselves as francophones.

But Ryan’s and Johnson’s political fates should be enough to give Charest and his Liberal admirers cause for reflection. Both men were enthusiastically courted and praised as potential saviors by key Liberals—and just as vigorously criticized when they outgrew their usefulness. Ryan, in 1977, won the leadership by more than a 2-to-l margin. But after being defeated in an election four years later, he fell prey to internal sniping and scheming and stepped down. Johnson, who replaced Robert Bourassa as premier in 1994 and served in that position for eight months before going down to defeat at the hands of the PQ, was such a strong candidate for the

leadership that he won by acclamation. But with the recriminations arising from the close outcome of the 1995 referendum, his leadership was mortally wounded.

Perhaps more to the point, Johnson, 53, was considered at the outset to have many of the same strengths now attributed to Charest. He was expected to attract rural and nationalist voters— although that was on the strength of residual affection for his father, Daniel Johnson Sr., who was elected Union Nationale premier of Quebec in 1966 and served two years before suffering a fatal heart attack. As well, his brother, Pierre Marc, served as premier for less than a year in 1985 after replacing René Lévesque as leader. As well, Johnson was expected to appeal to uneasy anglophone voters, since he was seen as the most staunchly federalist Liberal leader in a generation. (As a sign of the political temperature in Quebec, after Johnson once asserted that “I am a Canadian first and foremost,” he was vilified in the media and later backed away from the remark.) He grew up in the then-almost entirely English-speaking Montreal district of Notre Dame de Grâce, attended Harvard University’s business school and married Mardi, an anglophone. Says one close associate: “In many ways, Daniel is almost more at home in the anglophone business community than in some French-speaking parts of Quebec society.”

But those potential assets turned into headaches:

Johnson was attacked by sovereigntists for being too federalist, by federalists for trying too hard to court nationalists, and by both sides for wavering when he tried to find middle ground. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was an early supporter, telling his caucus in early 1994, “It is a long time since we have had a premier like Johnson we can work with.” But he soured after Johnson criticized the federal government several times for its alleged lack of flexibility. By the time of Johnson’s resignation last week, one associate of both men described their relationship as “careful and courteous, but little more than that.”

All of that is relevant to a Charest candidacy because of the chances of history repeating itself. Already, Bouchard and other Péquistes are trying to establish Charest as a rigid, traditional federalist— or, as Bouchard said, “the candidate of the Privy Council and English Canada.” That effort has been helped, unintentionally, by a barrage of praise for Charest in the rest of the country, led by Chrétien and other prominent federal Liberals. “Frankly,” said Ciaccia, “the best thing other Canadians could do would be to stay quiet, and let Quebec Liberals decide on our leader ourselves.”

Moreover, grafting a federal Tory politician onto the body of the Quebec Liberal party is far from a natural fit. Charest’s grandfather was a Union Nationale organizer. His father, Claude, also known as “Red,” who still lives in Sherbrooke, was a longtime federal Conservative activist. “Old rivalries die hard,” Charest once observed to an acquaintance about his relationship with the Liberals. That cuts both ways: despite the enthusiasm within the Quebec Liberals for Charest, some members cite concerns over the aggressively right-wing economic program he espoused in the last federal election.

“Politics is about more than just the unity issue,” said one MNA. “If we’re going to call ourselves Liberals, we have to ask whether we live up to that name in our actions. I don’t see much reassurance with Charest.” Still, pollsters and pundits in Quebec agree with the Liberals that Charest represents the party’s best—and perhaps only—chance of winning an election. A much-publicized poll released by the Angus

Reid Group last week, although taken before Johnson’s announcement, showed that if Charest replaced Johnson, the Liberals would surge from trailing the PQ by 12 points to leading them by seven. Charest’s popularity, said pollster Christian Bourque, cut across “age, gender and linguistic lines, improving the Liberals’ ratings everywhere.” In particular, results suggest he would

attract younger people between 18 and 24—who usually strongly support the PQ—and other PQ supporters who disapprove of the party’s plan to hold another referendum. Says Marc-Yvan Côté, a former Liberal cabinet minister and key election organizer: “I was on the ground during the 1995 referendum, and I saw the enthusiasm that Charest unleashed in francophone areas.”

As well, Quebec Liberals—who have been criticized for speaking of federalism only in emotionless, profit-loss terms in the past—say that the time is right for a leader who will speak emotionally about Canada. “Charest,” says Chagnon, “embodies what I call a QuebecCanadian: someone who feels a huge emotion towards both enti-

Political assets can quickly become headaches

ties, and can communicate that in a manner everyone approves of.” That view is echoed by Richard Martineau, the editor of Voir magazine, a hip Montreal weekly that caters to people in their 20s and 30s. Martineau, who normally employs withering prose to describe politicians of all stripes, is sympathetic and respectful towards Charest. “The reality, even though the rest of Canada

doesn’t understand it, is that Quebecers don’t want to separate, they just want some measure of respect,” says Martineau. “Charest is a great communicator, a guy who speaks about this with real passion, and the only one out there who gives them a reason to feel good emotionally about Canada.” Because of that, Martineau draws a parallel between Bouchard’s decision,

in late 1995, to leave his position leading the federal Bloc Québécois to take over the PQ, and the dilemma facing Charest now. “The poor bastards,” Martineau says. “On each side of the battle, they’ve been told the fate of a country is in their hands, and only they can save it.” He adds: “When that happens, you’re condemned to do what everyone else wants, whether you want it, need it, or not.” In Quebec, even as embattled federalists worry about saving the country, what they may need the most right now is a leader who can save them from themselves.

With BRENDA BRAN SWELL in Quebec City