Both the Canadian federal government and the Quebec provincial government are in periods of transition. The absence of the violence and popular demonstrations that so often mark “transition” in other societies does not mean that the impending changes are not profound. They will have significant effects on Canada domestically and in its relations with the United States. If this reorientation can be characterized in human terms, it would be epitomized in the resignation avant firing of federal Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski and the death of archetypal Quebec separatist Pierre Bourgault. Each development marked the end of an era.
The Long March of the Lame Duck.
Jean Chretien has been in federal politics since 1963; he has been Liberal Party leader since 1990 and prime minister since 1993. His has been a long running show — dominating the political scene and directing it with an increasingly heavy hand. A second volume of a Chretien biography by Lawrence Martin is tentatively titled Ironman; the title implies it all—strength combined with rigid inflexibility.
Throughout his career, Chretien has been underrated — sometimes with justification. He arrived in Ottawa politics, essentially a unilingual Francophone, and it is sometimes said that he is still inarticulate in both official languages. He was not intellectual, elegant, or graceful (one early description depicted him as looking like the man who would drive the get-away car in a bank robbery) and he was easily eclipsed by Liberal “stars” of his own era, notably Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and John Turner. What separated him from the regularly changing herd of perennial backbenchers in Canadian parliamentary government was endless energy, relentless determination, a knack for attracting brilliant loyalists, and perfect pitch for domestic politics (coupled with a “tin ear” in foreign affairs).
His foil for the past decade and his prospective successor as Prime Minister is the former Finance Minister Paul Martin — who is everything that Chretien is not: a scion of political and financial privilege; a highly successful multimillionaire businessman; articulate in both official languages; and appreciated (if not loved) in both the Canadian West and Quebec. Thus there were more than enough bases for a daggers drawn confrontation. The surprise is not that push has finally come to shove, but that it took so long to happen.
In this regard, it appears as if Martin had determined to play the Liberal loyalist role and patiently wait his turn, concentrating on organizing support within the party throughout the 1990s. Chretien, however, became less and less willing to yield the prime ministership gracefully and in May 2002 attempted to abort the ongoing Liberal party leadership race and thwart Martin’s bid. The confrontation led to Chretien firing Martin (or Martin resigning, depending on the storyteller) and a firestorm of public and party criticism directed against Chretien. After desperate maneuvering to retain power, in August 2002 Chretien was forced by the Liberal party to agree to set a resignation date. The alternative would have been facing a leadership review when Martin had demonstrated that he had control of the party. Somewhat taken aback by what they had accomplished — the first time the Liberal Party had ever forced a prime minister from leadership—Martin and the Liberal hierarchy permitted Chretien to set February 4, 2004, as his departure date — a date that at times appears further away than the next millennium.
Filling Time (Politically). Politically, it has been a tedious year. Officially, the Liberals are engaged in a leadership race that isn’t. Two straw candidates (Finance Minister John Manley and Culture Minister Sheila Copps) eventually pitted themselves against Martin. Neither has the depth of political accomplishment, the party organization, popular support, or the funding to pose the slightest threat to Martin, who has commitments from the overwhelming majority of Cabinet, caucus MPs, and leadership in individual ridings. Still they have been going through the motions of debates during which Martin has revealed little of himself or his future policies, but neither Manley nor Copps demonstrated any meaningful challenge. Manley retired to the sidelines in mid-July, admitting ruefully that he had no chance of winning; Copps said that she will fight on. Separate votes in September (for party officials) and November (for party members) will designate the new leader. Short of an act of God (not even the proverbial bedroom political catastrophe involving a dead girl/live boy would derail him), Martin will be designated Liberal leader on November 15.
Filling Time (Substantively). One rationale for the long goodbye was the requirement for Chretien to have time to anchor a “legacy” in Canadian history. Although this rationale was initially treated with a bit of a sneer, Chretien has been more active than anticipated. Indeed, throughout its winter/spring session, Parliament has addressed a series controversial topics such as approving the Kyoto Treaty, accepting the legality of homosexual marriage, decriminalizing the use of marijuana for minor offenders, and revising campaign financing laws to reduce the influence of big donors and substitute the public purse. Throughout the process, Chretien has driven his caucus hard, making few compromises and effectively threatening a snap election to maintain control of the agenda.
But What Happens After November? Nevertheless, come November and Paul Martin’s ascendancy, what remains for Chretien? There is the potential for considerable awkwardness with Martin as Liberal party leader and Chretien as Prime Minister for 3 months. Some Martin supporters reportedly have been pressing for a Chretien resignation/departure as early as September when the first set of votes will clearly identify Martin’s inevitable victory. There are those who hope that Chretien will take a “walk in the snow” and return following the end-of-year holidays to depart somewhat earlier than February 4. Nevertheless, there is a stronger likelihood that he will stay to the date that he previously determined. He is clearly enjoying his “don’t give a damn” final days.
In technical terms, there is no reason that the incoming/outgoing governments should have special tensions. The United States addresses the mechanics of regime transfer every 4 or 8 years. Although Martin is obviously well prepared to govern, the reality is that the unforeseen always occurs, and 3 months to construct a Cabinet, plan for parliamentary/fiscal action however brief, and war game for an early election would help rather than hinder Martin. Indeed, there are those who contend that Martin should go on bended knee if necessary to urge Chretien to stay until February.
His image and that of the Liberal coterie surrounding him can be demonstrated in the saga of federal Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski. A lifetime dedicated Liberal and journalist (author of an admiring biography of Pierre Trudeau; speechwriter for Chretien); Radwanski received the Privacy Commissioner position, although responsible to Parliament, virtually as a sinecure in 2000. Although vigorous and effective in the defense of individual privacy, he was almost preternaturally maladroit in the management of his expense account, lavish office redecoration, and ability to alienate prospective allies. Running afoul of his parliamentary oversight committee because of misleading and evasive statements on expenses, he found that his personal arrogance toward the committee, high-handed treatment of provincial privacy commissioners, and abusive treatment of his staff had left him with no defenders. The lesson? Competence no longer excuses corruption, and arrogance has become a cardinal sin in Canadian politics.
As a man who learned his political instincts from Quebec politics in the 1950’s and has been in federal politics for 40 years, Chretien is a man of times that have past. His inability or unwillingness to change cost him his party leadership and altered the elements of his legacy.
Balanced Budget. He will receive credit (along with Paul Martin) for ending the long string of federal budget deficits and reducing the Canadian national debt. Some of the budget cutting came at the expense of defense readiness, some was offloaded onto the provinces, all benefited from the unparalleled global/North American prosperity that ended with 9/11. Nevertheless, Chretien persistently backed Martin’s tough budgets and stared down those whose fiscal oxen were being gored (or not fed at the desired levels). Canada’s federal finances are significantly more stable in 2003 than they were in 1993.
National Unity. Chretien assumed power at a point when the Tories had crashed on the rocks of failed national unity efforts. He resolved not to reopen the efforts to amend the Constitution or to respond to Quebec’s demands for greater recognition of its unique status within Canada. Quebec’s reaction in 1995 was its own referendum—one that if successful would have led the province out of the Canadian federation; it barely failed. Chretien’s reaction to this slightly better than a “hanging chad” victory was to implement a Clarity Act designed to force any future referendum to adhere to stringent guidelines—guidelines that some federalists believe can never be legally met. Instead of the furor anticipated by critics and many Liberal Party members, the Clarity Act has been met with apathy in Quebec. For the first time in a decade, the belle province is at peace.
Social Issues. In his waning days, Chretien has pushed through Cabinet, caucus, and parliament a number of issues whose national popularity and/or necessity can be questioned. The science behind “global warming” cum the Kyoto Treaty remains unproved. The national desire for homosexual marriage is questionable. The complexities and consequences of decriminalized use of marijuana are yet to be revealed. The manner in which money, the “mother’s milk of politics,” will be delivered to parties and campaigns is unprecedented. While there ultimately may be less to these actions than trumpeted in the headlines, they put Canada on new paths politically, economically, and socially. And in all of these issues, Chretien has placed Canada directly athwart U.S. preferences and decisions.
An Alienated West. For a generation the West has said that it “wants in” to the benefits of federalism. For the Chretien era, the West has gotten a stiff arm and sneered at plaints from Alberta premier Ralph Klein. The political logic is inexorable: there are virtually no Liberal seats in Alberta and BC. “Elect more Liberals and you’ll have more influence” is the mantra. At the same time, however, the Liberals have followed paths highly objectionable to Alberta and much of BC with the prospective fiscal restrictions of the Kyoto Treaty, the personal constraints of the massively expensive firearms registry, and pursuit of a social justice agenda inimical to many Westerners. Simultaneously, Albertans have calculated the massive percentage of their taxes that has been transferred to other parts of Canada. Ottawa is indifferent; Albertans are not amused; Liberals have few hopes in the West.
Poor Relations with the United States. This circumstance has been belabored at great length in the media, and the most obvious negative in Chretien’s legacy has been a steady decay in our bilateral relations. Frankly, we do not know how the recent spate of Canadian social decisions on homosexuality and permissive drug use will play out. A conservative Republican administration has been an exceptionally poor fit with Chretien who, at this juncture, projects the impression that he would have been happier with regime change in Washington than in Baghdad. Personalities count in politics, and the frosty personal relationship between president and prime minister has complicated normal and perennial economic issues as well as the defense/security problems stemming from 9/11.
There is an assumption in Washington that a Martin government can build a reasonable relationship with the Bush Administration, which if re-elected in 2004 (a reasonably safe if not an absolutely assured bet) would last until the end of Martin’s first term in Ottawa. Ambassador Cellucci clearly signaled U.S. desire to move past Iraq in our relations, emphasized the positive, and avoided using the word “disappointment” (PM Chretien responded with a diatribe against USG fiscal/economic policy and its “right wing” orientation).
Moreover, Martin is distinctly more cosmopolitan than Chretien; he has been comfortable in boardrooms, and as Finance Minister, he met senior people in the Bush government. He does not appear to have the aggressive-defensive approach to the bilateral relationship that characterizes Chretien’s hostile non-sequiturs. Moreover, he is not afraid to be seen in the United States or in Washington. For his part, Chretien seemed to treat his U.S. trips with a clandestine secrecy akin to someone visiting a mistress rather than a neighbor.
The Inevitable Election.
The election is the Liberals to lose—and it would be almost impossible for them to lose it. Analysts are mulling over the size of the majority with projections up to 190 or 200 seats of a total of 301 (or 307 if a census-driven seat addition is implemented before the election). The most optimistic private projection from the opposition is a Liberal minority government. The polls show the Liberals ahead of their combined opposition, which remains fragmented and apparently beyond immediate repair. Over the past decade, the Liberals have accomplished a number of NDP objectives while swiping Alliance policies such as balanced budgets and tax reduction. They can continue to play both sides of the centerline, playing to “blue Liberals” with commitments for greater defense spending and improved relations with the U.S. and “red Liberals” with promises for greater spending on issues such as health. Circumstances are stark for the opposition; it is Liberals as far as the eye can see.
Having failed miserably in the 2000 election, the Canadian Alliance, New Democrats, and Progressive Conservatives opted for new and younger leadership. The fourth major federal party, the Bloc Quebecois, is facing existential challenge. To capsulate:
The Canadian Alliance (CA). As the official opposition with 63 seats, the CA performed well over the past year. Its leader, Stephen Harper, is intelligent and focused; his “critics” have pressed the Liberals hard, but all to little or no avail in public perceptions. Although the Alliance claims that polls underestimate their strength and that they have significantly reduced their negatives (down to 10-15 percent who say they would never vote for them vs. 33 percent in 2000), they still have little resonance in Ontario and none in Quebec or Atlantic Canada. Their funding is solid, and their Western base appears intact; even with Paul Martin leading the Liberals, the Alliance should hold its seats in Alberta and BC. Their dream, however, is “uniting the right” and pulling the mother lode of Tory votes into a new conservative alliance that would permit a serious expansion of parliamentary strength and ultimately a challenge to Liberal dominance. Thus far, through three leaders, that objective has been a chimera, but it is the only game in town if the Alliance seeks to be a national party positioned to govern rather than a regional party condemned to plaintive dissent.
The Progressive Conservatives (Tories). The PCs have the name but not the game. Dating from Canada’s inception, the PCs are a “grand old party” but one still attempting to emerge from the catastrophic 1993 election that dropped them from a governing majority to two seats. They barely maintained official party status following the 2000 election, and their leader Joe Clark spent the next 2 1/2 years warming the seat for new leadership. Unfortunately, their freshly chosen leader, Peter MacKay, MP from Nova Scotia, impresses virtually no one. Although telegenic and adroit in Parliament, MacKay gets little respect from political professionals. One Liberal MP declared him “intellectually young” and another said the Liberals were not concerned about any challenge from him. Even some Tories see him as the creation of the PC establishment (his father was a Mulroney Cabinet minister and Mulroney backed him) and neither as intelligent nor as mature as the alternatives at the Tory leadership conference. He badly mangled the deal that brought him the deciding votes in the leadership campaign. It was less the commitment to review NAFTA and run candidates in all 301 parliamentary ridings than the naivete of signing a pact with his opponent and believing it could be kept secret. As a result, he has hit the ground stumbling with media jeers for ineptness.
Nevertheless, MacKay is what the Tories have and will have through the 2004 election. According to some analysts, as many as 80 percent of the Tories want a political/electoral agreement with the CA. The obstacle of the “301 rule” ostensibly binds the Tories, but insiders are confident that there are multiple devices to adhere to the letter if not the spirit, e.g., running both a nominal, low profile “Tory” and a “star” fusion CA-PC candidate. The trick will be creating a mutually acceptable arrangement against the opposition of ideologues in both parties within the next 6 months. Essentially, recalcitrant Tories believe any agreement would be a suicide pact and that the Tories only hope is to play for longer-term recovery as the only “national” conservative party. Thus despite the technical possibilities and the desires of CA leadership, it is likely that the right will run divided in the coming election.
There is a sense that this will be the last such race. The 2004 election could see the Tories again losing official party status. The Tories have no core of regional support; they could easily lose their seats in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec; they are vulnerable also in the Atlantic Provinces to a Martin led party (although Liberals also face anger over the de facto end of the mismanaged fishing industry). In that regard, if MacKay has not already managed a merger with the Alliance, stronger leaders (former Ontario premier Mike Harris) could challenge for leadership.
New Democratic Party (NDP). Also under new proprietorship, the NDP is searching for its position in the Canadian political spectrum. Jack Layton, former Toronto city councilor, is articulate and intelligent—perhaps almost too much so for his ultimate good. Although touted by some media, others are already suggesting that Layton has a Stockwell Day aroma, in his hog-the-cameras, 30-second sound bite style, complete with orange ties. More important, however, is whether the NDP stays “hard left” in its political preferences or moves to the center, hoping to attract “red Liberals” concerned over Martin’s supposed fiscally conservative ties to big business. Liberals will adjust accordingly; if the NDP stays left, the Liberals run as centrists. If the NDP moves toward the center, the Liberals tout their recent actions on homosexual rights, decriminalized marijuana, election-financing reform and say that they can accomplish NDP objectives over time, but the NDP will never govern. Thus while one journalist hypothesized a general conservative collapse with the NDP becoming the official opposition by holding 35 seats, that outcome still appears to be a pipe (or perhaps a marijuana) dream.
The Bloc Quebecois (BQ). The Bloc is facing an existential crisis. Its purpose in Ottawa was never to aspire to govern Canada, but to represent Quebec sovereignists while laying the groundwork for an independent Quebec. Hence the April defeat of the Parti Quebecois puts this objective in abeyance for a minimum of 5 and more probably at least 9 years—a long time to continue wandering in a political wilderness that BQ supporters entered in 1993. In the two subsequent national elections, the Bloc lost strength; in June it lost two by-elections to Liberals in ridings that were overwhelmingly Francophone (over 90 percent) and previously BQ bastions.
While one can flog up some “best face” rationales for these two defeats such as the vagaries of by-elections and the low turnout, they still leave Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe scrambling for a future. His best approach probably is to argue that given Liberal dominance on provincial and federal levels, sovereignists desperately need strong representation in Ottawa. It appears an unlikely ploy; while Chretien was the anti-Christ for substantial numbers of Quebeckers, Martin is at least respected and even viewed in some Francophone quarters as a supporter of Quebec interests. In this regard, the touchstone is Martin’s support for the constitutional revisions embodied in the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, which would have recognized Quebec as a “distinct society.” Moreover, although personable, competent, and well organized, Duceppe lacks the charisma that has permitted leaders such as Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard to convince the doubting that the separatist dream was reality-based and short term obtainable.
Consequently, the Bloc is regarded as road kill, just waiting to be swept up following the election. The most optimistic scenario has them losing only half of their current 34 seats, many of which are filled by unimpressive time-servers; pessimists see them holding no more than a handful. Only an unexpected sovereignist resurgence, sparked by monumental blunders from provincial and/or federal Liberals, can save them.
A Martin Government: What Lies Ahead?
The problems of Canada are primarily those of a successful Western democracy: balancing the costs of health care for aging boomers against the need to educate the next generation effectively and repair deteriorating infrastructure; coping with the challenges of a multicultural society whose multifold individualities sometimes grate on each other; addressing societal safety within a structure devoted to individual liberties; meeting the needs of aboriginals caught between past and present. In short, the problems of governance in a society that is prosperous and at peace.
Thus the basic challenge facing Prime Minister Martin is one of expectations. He is virtually expected to turn water into wine while walking on it. During the past year, he has benefited from not being Jean Chretien and from being outside Cabinet; he has been able to avoid directly contradicting the Liberal government but hint that his choices would have been different. His charge that there is a “democratic deficit” in Parliament has been attractive to reformers seeking more power for MPs both government backbenchers and opposition members, but he may find it hard to implement when contemplating the pleasures of automatic majorities. His ability to be ambiguous will change when he is prime minister and the “buck” stops with him; nevertheless, his problems—potential and actual—are hardly unmanageable.
The Martin Cabinet. For those who tag all substance with personality labels, the Cabinet building exercise is fascinating. Every pundit can play, but everyone will be wrong in one particular or another. One can find arguments for the retention in Cabinet and the departure from politics for both John Manley and Sheila Copps, Martin’s hapless opponents for Liberal Party leadership. Likewise, a case can be made for virtually every current Cabinet member, except a handful of die-hard Chretien loyalists (Herb Dhaliwal, David Collenette) who expect their rewards elsewhere. Certainly, there are far more hopefuls, many with claims of long loyalty to Martin, than there are slots. Martin’s basic problem remains the plethora of Ontario MPs combined with a dearth of quality elsewhere. One MP said with a smile that there were 29 Toronto area MPs who were studying French and/or substantive files anticipating a front bench assignment. But when every section of the country demands Cabinet representation, those disappointed will outnumber those delighted. Once the disappointed turn bitter, the next intraparty conspiracy will begin.
The Cabinet problem will be exacerbated by the reported Martin decision to adopt a one-third/one-third/one-third rule for its composition. Thus a third will be from the existing Cabinet, another third from current backbenchers, and the final group from “outside”—possibly self-exiled “stars” like Brian Tobin, the former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, or the highly touted former Liberal New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna. Hence Martin’s need to hold a quick election to refresh Liberal ranks, particularly in Quebec; until then he has a derivative rather than a direct mandate.
One of the amusing elements of the summer was the re-emergence of former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy via a self-inflated trial balloon touting his possible return to federal politics. A master of petulant arrogance, Axworthy made himself memorable at DFAIT by hectoring homilies instructing Washington how to manage its foreign policy. Never fazed by his errors, e.g., that the Russians would never accept an end to the 1972 ABM Treaty, Axworthy simply lost his Washington audience. He exercised his right to pontificate; we exercised our right to ignore him. Thus while he presumably could find a riding in Manitoba where he spent his career as a largess-distributing godfather, that would not translate into a Martin cabinet post.
The Martin Style. Both Canadian politicians and populace have chaffed under Chretien’s dirigiste style. As one Liberal insider put it, “over the years, the decisionmaking line shortened;” at the end, it appears that Chretien consults only with himself. In contrast, Martin has a reputation for being inclusive to a fault. He wants to hear all sides of all questions; he pays attention to each pleader—but the consequence is the impression of being indecisive. Ultimately when Martin is depicted as dithering, Canadians may come to appreciate the Chretien style that at least made decisions.
The Martin Personality. Some observers predict that he will be angry and thin-skinned when challenged; others suggest that he is not an “idea man,” but rather one who has benefited from adroit staff and good briefings. They ask whether he wants to be prime minister for any reason other than Paul Martin, Senior never reaching the pinnacle. Some worry that he will prove too close to business and forget about the “social Liberalism” that marked his father; others say that despite his finance credentials, he is no conservative. Still others have been struck by his social concern, e.g., worries over educating the children of immigrants. Despite his years in the public eye, Martin is far from an open book and has maintained a remarkable degree of family and financial privacy; Canadians will want to know more.
Defense and Foreign Affairs. The interrelations of Canadian defense and foreign policy badly need reexamination. The current studies date from 1994 and are admitted by all to be obsolete. There are hints from the Martin government-in-waiting that experts are seriously examining both topics, but there are hard, expensive questions related to each topic and with them the direction of bilateral relations with the United States.
And the Economy? Modern economies can be amazingly fragile. The United States is still struggling to recover from the consequences of 9/11 and the subsequent wrenching restructure of priorities that transmuted massive surpluses into massive deficits. For Canada, the combination of expenses from SARS, depressed tourism, and the export restrictions accompanying “mad cow” disease knocked a percentage point off projected growth for 2003 and with it much of the prospective federal surplus that provinces were anticipating would buttress their health and other social programs. Thus one set of economists predicts 10 percent unemployment, reduced federal revenues, and less funding available for popular programs. Nevertheless, most of the world would envy Canada’s “problems.”
Quebec Elects for a Long Pause in the Sovereignty Wars
But what a difference a year makes. At mid-year 2002, Mario Dumont and his Democratic Alliance (ADQ) were virtually anointed as the next government. Bernard Landry and the Parti Quebecois had cratered; observers said it would take a miracle for them to be re-elected and, indeed, they might finish a poor third in a new National Assembly. In contrast, Jean Charest continued to struggle to recover the “mojo” that characterized him as “Captain Canada” during the 1995 referendum and to convert himself into the semblance of a genuine Quebecker. The Liberals appeared at loose ends, losing by-elections to the ADQ with mutterings that Charest might be replaced before any election.
So What Happened to the ADQ? Essentially everything associated with “Mario madness” fell to earth as Quebeckers began to examine Dumont as a prospective prime minister rather than a pleasant, intelligent young man with a charming family. Once the ADQ fell under the microscope of critical examination by the media as well as attack by Pequistes and Liberals, its shortcomings became more evident. The discontent that had driven PQ cohorts to park their votes with the ADQ and boost its ostensible electoral support to 40 percent steadily declined. Several key ADQ organizers were revealed to have had criminal records (most electorates prefer candidates with criminal records in their futures rather than in their pasts). The party was forced to backtrack on key elements of its platform such as the single tax and began to be viewed as too right wing for Quebeckers who like to complain about their heavy taxes, but also enjoy their hefty benefits.
Additionally, Dumont made a significant tactical error by traveling to Toronto to speak before the Empire Club and proclaim in a speech that, in effect, the ADQ was not going to promote Quebec sovereignty. It was less the venue than the intimation that Dumont would lack vigor in defense of Quebec interests. Dumont’s gaffe permitted Charest to campaign as a centrist-nationalist and pulled errant Pequistes back to the party. The result was electoral catastrophe for the ADQ; Dumont pulled 17 percent of the vote, but the ADQ has only four MNAs. Even more disheartening, none of the 2002 by-election victors or the “star” ADQ candidates was successful. Unsurprisingly, Dumont is depressed by the results, allegedly speaking slightingly of the quality of his ADQ associates.
Dumont is faced with the recognition that he was a one-man-band with a talent for rhetoric rather than an apparatnik who lived to organize. To make a new party succeed, one must organize, organize, organize. And when that effort is complete; you go forth and organize some more. Then you hope that circumstances will coincide so that you can take advantage of years, even decades, of organization and planning; that, when the lightening strikes, you will be ready.
In short, Dumont caught the lightening. However, instead of being able to transform it into productive electricity, it incinerated him. Politically, he is now a pile of ashes; the question remains whether he has phoenix potential or whether 50 years from now his obituary will note that he once was regarded as a potential Quebec premier.
Why Did the PQ Almost Win? Facing catastrophe in fall 2002, the PQ regrouped and fought back. According to one observer, they carefully analyzed where they were losing votes to the ADQ and focus-grouped alternative approaches. The result was a more “family friendly” platform promising expanded day care and reduced workweeks for young married families. Landry personally was repackaged from his traditional image of a passionate professor to a user-friendly grandfather.
And, indeed, it came close to success. The PQ after all held a number of “aces”—a solid economy featuring a reviving Montreal, a balanced budget, and lower unemployment. The prospect of another sovereignty referendum was quietly touted to the faithful, but not spotlighted. The passions over amalgamation of cities had receded into a popular cause only for a handful of anti-merger Anglophone enclaves that continue to reject incorporation into a greater Montreal. Indeed, even the PQ’s critics admitted that it had provided basic good government with minimal corruption. Until the end, polls suggested essential popular satisfaction with the government.
Midway through the campaign, polls indicated a clear PQ lead, but following the leaders’ debate there was a distinct shift to the Liberals. One observer simply suggested that the PQ was “two term tired” and it showed. Voters believed that change was not dangerous and that Charest was “safe.” The PQ was given an opportunity to sit down and rest for a while.
And Why Did the Liberals Actually Win? One observer commented that the Liberals are as much the “natural governing party” on the Quebec scene as they are on the national level. For the Liberals to lose, they must have worn out their mandate and/or face a charismatic opponent. Their route to victory is to build on their unbreakable Montreal Anglophone base and appeal to those Francophones who are either federalists or “soft sovereignists.” Thus in 1998, Charest won more popular votes than the charismatic PQ leader Lucien Bouchard, but still lost due to Pequiste domination in Francophone ridings.
In 2003 Charest actually had 17,000 fewer votes than in 1998 but emerged victorious through a hard won perception of competence, Pequiste defections to the ADQ (and a reduced popular turnout), and a victory in the leaders’ debate during which Dumont appeared immature and Landry (often reading from notes) seemed to have lost focus on the importance of the event.
Has Charest convinced the citizens that he is more a Quebecker than a federalist? Not really. Observers wryly noted that at one juncture, Charest trumpeted that a victory would make him “prime minister of Canada.”
Nevertheless, Charest won a clear victory (44 percent) with a solid majority (76 seats) in the National Assembly. Under normal circumstances, he should win a second term before the opposition can expect to have a serious chance of victory.
But Some Early Caveats. In starting strongly to implement his platform, Charest has stepped squarely on some sensitive toes. He has indicated that the much appreciated $5/day childcare will have to be modified. He has announced that those on welfare who refuse jobs will have benefits cut to minimal levels. And he has reaffirmed a commitment to reduce public expenditures generally to make way for tax cuts. At least one astute observer has suggested that Charest is making enemies faster than he is retaining (or building) friends, and, consequently, he could become a one-term premier. Others pooh-pooh such judgments, noting that Charest has barely been in office 100 days, that any misstep can be righted, and that most of those squealing objections are individuals who never supported Charest in any event.
Still, Charest faces a tough and experienced opposition; 25 of the PQ MNAs are former ministers and Landry has been anything but lackadaisical as Opposition Leader. The Pequistes have skewered inexperienced Liberals and made their steep learning curves painful at points.
Wither the PQ and the Future of Quebec Separatism?
Nevertheless, the Parti Quebecois faces the problems of both renewal and reorientation. At age 66, Landry is not a long-term answer, and the PQ must also rethink whether its traditional emphasis on high taxes/high services is a winning formula for a new generation of voters, who are clearly tired of the former and perhaps willing to pare down the latter. In that regard, the 25 incumbent former ministers in the National Assembly are a short term plus, but hardly an indicator that the PQ is the party of the future—their strengths are also their weaknesses. Additionally, there are those who believe that the PQ’s traditional right/center/left rainbow of supporters should shift left, incorporating “greens” who are a minor voice province-wide, but key in some urban ridings.
The Missing Separatists. One of the most puzzling elements of the Quebec election was the difference between polls on election eve that said 40 percent or more of the electorate would answer “yes” to the 1995 referendum question on Quebec separatism and the 33 percent who voted for the PQ—its lowest level since 1973. Where did those missing separatists go?
The answers are various and inconclusive. Some apparently stayed home as voting participation dipped almost 10 points from 1998 to 70.5 percent in April 2003—the lowest since 1927. Reportedly some avowed separatists were no longer convinced that the PQ was fighting for an independent Quebec; they could support no alternative party, but no longer could back the PQ. Some went to the ADQ, believing perhaps that Dumont (having supported “yes” in the 1995 referendum) would ultimately reveal himself as a separatist.
Probing the sense of those “yes” sympathizers suggest a number of themes at play. One observer compared the question with abortion. Do I want the right to choose? Yes. Would I have an abortion if I became pregnant? No. Do I want to be in the position where I have to choose? Absolutely not. These are individuals for whom the question of Quebec separatism was the most poignantly divisive political issue throughout the whole of their adult lives. Twice in 15 years, families and friends took irreconcilable positions; many are simply unwilling to revisit the issue regardless of the virtues they might imagine for an independent Quebec. Or they continue to believe that no matter how they voted, Ottawa would frustrate their aspirations—so who but a masochist would seek such anguish?
For others Quebec independence is drifting toward sepia-edged nostalgia. Yes, I would still like Quebec independence, but I would also like to be 25 again and an NHL star for the Canadians. But in real life, I know that these are never-neverland fantasies. Whatever the intensity of the debates that delineated Quebec political life for most of the boomer generation, it has not been transferred to GenX. The youth of the 21st century certainly does not lack for political passion—but its passions are more likely to be global than provincial. Perhaps they are now confident that the French fact now dominates Quebec; that indeed they are “masters in their own house;” that they effectively exploit Ottawa financially with disproportionate leverage in federal politics, and that it has been a long time since any arrogant unilingual Anglophone demanded that a French shop girl “talk white.”
In any event, by assuring that he would never hold another losing referendum, Bernard Landry also assured that he never held a winning referendum. The option has been preserved, but at a price; it is not an option that Landry will ever exercise. Pierre Bourgault was right; if an individual were interested in preserving the option of moving toward Quebec independence, it was necessary to vote for the PQ in April. Hence if prior to the election, separatism was on life support, the election defeat pulled the plug.
Separatism is hardly dead forever, and its revival may be no further away than a fleur de lis flag stomping in some nameless Ontario town. Some believe that Charest, while attempting to demonstrate that a federalist can secure significant benefits for Quebec, will fail (for example in rectifying the “fiscal disequilibrium” between Ottawa and Quebec) and, in failure, illustrate anew that independence is the only answer for Quebec. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that the men and women of the generation that carried the torch from the Quiet Revolution to the present (Rene Levesque, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, Louise Beaudoin, Gilles Duceppe, Bernard Landry) will be dead or in quiet retirement before sovereignty next seizes the passions of Quebeckers.
A Final Look at Sovereignty.
In contrast, some separatists are determined that next time they will not go the route of “sovereignty association,” “renewed federalism,” EU model confederation and/or “partnership” with Canada. They believe that the half in; half out dichotomy was a sovereignty lite approach that failed due to its ambiguities. They believe that straight sovereignty can be sold to Quebeckers as reflecting the reality of Quebec as a mature, adult North American state that has much to offer to the hemisphere and the world and has no need to be a mendicant to Ottawa. That, however, would be a different formula—and require a very different type of Quebecker than the hesitant “habitant” of the past.
David T. Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. Retired from the U. S. Foreign Service, he lives in Arlington, Virginia. He has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications, including this journal.