Campaign 2004

MORE DISTINCT THAN USUAL

You know things are strange when one of the more popular campaigns is about beer, says BENOIT AUBIN

June 21 2004
Campaign 2004

MORE DISTINCT THAN USUAL

You know things are strange when one of the more popular campaigns is about beer, says BENOIT AUBIN

June 21 2004

MORE DISTINCT THAN USUAL

Quebec

You know things are strange when one of the more popular campaigns is about beer, says BENOIT AUBIN

IN DOWNTOWN MONTREAL, on a day when the lunch-hour buzz was all about the coming weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix, one politician was doing his best to capture the attention of passing voters. Jonathan Bleue was posing in his dark suit and white shirt, pumping flesh and kissing the occasional babe. Like the Bloc Québécois’ Gilles Duceppe, Bleue is campaigning mostly in French, and only in Quebec—thus helping make this province truly distinct in the otherwise national June 28 election. Bleue is, in fact, the star candidate in an ambitious and popular campaign. How ironic, then, that it’s in fact a bold

effort by Labatt to return its sagging flagship brand, Blue, to its once dominant position in the Quebec suds market.

It’s a full-fledged effort, too, complete with a campaign bus criss-crossing the province, a Dixieland band, party workers waving placards at rallies, TV and radio ads, bombastic stump speeches, glib sound bites for the media, and a Web site that has attracted more than 150,000 visitors in the first two weeks of the campaign. They’re all hawking the Parti Bleue’s slogan: “votez pour le fun” (let’s vote for fun). Then there’s the party “leader.” Call central casting for a credible-

looking Quebec pol and J. Bleue would be it. He even looks like Duceppe—minus the wolfish blue eyes. In reality he’s François Maranda, a comedian from Quebec City.

Parti Bleue’s campaign is a credible parody of the real thing—but with a street-smart sense of irony. “Money makes you happy only when it stays in your pockets,” is Jonathan Bleue’s official tax policy. Last week, he was making good on a promise to help Canada become a happier country by “de-taxing essential goods and products.” He and a handful of flunkies were offering to refund, in cash, the sales tax that customers

walking out of the HMV music store at Peel and Ste-Catherine streets had just paid. He also says that 5-À-7 (French for happy hour) is more fun than 9-to-5, and therefore, the shifts should be reversed—work for two hours, party for eight.

The campaign has elicited many a smile in the province. As Bleue notes, “other politicians make you laugh, but we do it on purpose.” But it has raised quite a few eyebrows as well from people who suspect that Labatt is exploiting the high level of cynicism currently found among Quebec voters. The Parti Bleue’s runaway success has put its mastermind on the defensive, somewhat. “We certainly did not plan on exploiting voters’ cynicism,” says Stéphane Duval, the national brand manager for Labatt’s Blue. “The idea was to piggyback on the real campaign, and create an off-festival kind of event, one that would draw attention to us by making people smile.” Duval stresses that the Blue campaign was in development since the summer of 2003, and that the issue of voter cynicism “should be put to the politicians, not to a beer maker.”

Indeed.

Everywhere they look, Quebecers see their political universe unravelling. The first half of the federal campaign has confronted Quebec voters with a series of situations that would look like slapstick material were they not unfolding in real life. As Chrétien Liberals slug it out against Martin Liberals, rumours from the rest of Canada have the Conservative Alliance surging ahead as a likely winner—a party that is currendy invisible and unknown in Quebec. Meanwhile, there’s the possibility that Quebecers—who trounced the Parti Québécois in a provincial election a year ago—could end up sending a massive cohort of separatists to Ottawa at the end of the month.

Playing into that, according to pollster Jean-Marc Léger, is the Liberal sponsorship scandal and the gun-registry issue. “Voters are turning their backs on politicians because they feel politicians have betrayed them or let them down,” he told Maclean’s.

And there is more.

As in Ontario, provincial Liberals are causing their federal cousins plenty of grief. In Ontario, it is the broken promise to not raise taxes; in Quebec, it’s an upcoming vote on city demergers. Premier Jean Charest was

elected on a promise to allow referendums to reverse the forced fusions of suburban and municipal enclaves. But now he says he will vote against demergers in the June 20 referendum on the issue. The mergers were an administrative and political fiasco— so will demergers be, it now seems.

The alternative to Charest’s bumbling Liberals, however, was just as bad. Two new reports by the province’s auditor general into staggering cost overruns in the expansion of the Montreal Métro, and mismanagement at the SGF, a government-run riskcapital agency, lay a good deal of the blame on the former PQ government. Meanwhile, the roads and bridges are crumbling; the hospitals are overcrowded. Few happy campers here.

The fun-seeking Parti Bleue is not actually running candidates on June 28, so what of the real show? “In the first half of the campaign, voters have expressed who they’re angry at, who they don’t want to vote for, but that all remains very volatile,” pollster Léger says. “In the second leg of the race, we shall see who, if any, gets their actual vote.”

As for Bleue leader Jonathan B, well, “he really enjoys the crowd, the attention, the perks, and the life,” says his communications adviser, Louis-Olivier Batty, in an oblique reference to the Bloc Québécois’ staying power in Ottawa. Once the race is over, Batty says, “Jonathan sera in-delogeable” There will be no getting rid of him. fil