In June 1999, little more than six months after the Parti Québecois (PQ) electoral victory, Canada was abuzz over what would happen next in Québec. Would there be another referendum? If so, when? What were the winning conditions necessary to hold a referendum? Conversely, had the PQ government in its second mandate gotten old very fast? Was the government so beset with the actuality of strikes (by nurses) and the prospects of more union action (a hot autumn) that it had lost its way? Was Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard so dispirited with losing the popular vote in the November election that he was contemplating retirement sooner rather than later?
Parti Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard (L) walks with Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe (R) during a rally in the Montreal suburb of Laval, October 30, 2000.
Photo by Shaun Best (Reuters)
A year later, in June 2000, circumstances were significantly different. In Ottawa, despite the then ongoing Senate debate over the Clarity Bill, the dominant clatter-chatter concerned the political plans of PM Jean Chretien and the evolution of the leadership race in the Canadian Alliance (CA). One had to probe and question directly to generate comment on Québec issues. While obviously the circumstances were different in Montréal and Québec City, political intensity was muted.
As it takes its first steps into the 21st century, Québec appears more at peace than at any time in the past decade. It is not that Québec sovereignists have given up or that faith in their cause has atrophied, but all have realized that the times are not timely. Not being fools, they have determined to wait: some grimly, some resignedly, some hopefully. Politically, the PQ dominates the scene; its preeminence is a function of good fortune and weak opposition, but it is real. Pollsters and pundits predict it will win an unprecedented third mandate when next it goes to the electorate. The only puzzle remains Mario Dumont and his supporters: Are they real and what do they want?
The Province: All politics are local . . .
Good governance. It appears clear that the PQ has settled in to deliver its most essential winning condition: good government. Such is a winning condition not just for any sovereignty referendum, but for reelection. And this is a party that appears to have decided it must be reelected before holding a referendum.
Fortunately for the PQ, the myriad problems that beset any administration in power have been eased by money. Our complex societies at this point in history have generated complex problems; financial resources may not solve them, but throwing money at least gives the impression that an administration is doing something. Québec as well as Canada, the United States, and much of the Western world is enjoying very substantial prosperity. Year by year, inflation, unemployment, and budget deficits have been down. Budget surpluses mean that taxes can be lowered and some careful new spending initiated. Good times are rolling, so the appreciation is that while there are significant problems in education and health care, they appear resolvable concerns rather than society rending catastrophes.
Bouchard at rest. In his career there have been a kaleidoscope of Lucien Bouchards. He has spun at frenetic speed through many of the Québec and federal political parties before coming to rest as leader of the PQ and Québec premier. In contrast to 1999 reports of a stressed, distraught, even tormented Bouchard, torn between remaining with his separatist dream and becoming a full time father piling up his fortune for retirement years, we have a significantly more mellow Bouchard in vintage 2000.
There is no question that he has been buoyed by his recent ninety-one percent party congress approval rating. The previous congress which ranked him in the mid-1970s was deemed an insult; a repeat of such semirejection could have seen him flounce out of politics. Consequently, his stratospheric approval, which was not widely predicted in advance, can be interpreted as vindication for Bouchard both personally and politically. To be sure, Bouchard campaigned harder for party support than in the past, but for its part the PQ realizes that there simply is no alternative to Bouchard. He is the horse they must ride if they are going to achieve a new relationship with Ottawa. Of course, it helps when the opposition is ineffectual.
Charest doesnt take command. Québec Liberal Party leader Jean Charest Captain Canada has become Captain Kangaroo. Yes, this appraisal is unfair, but it reflects a profound level of disillusion among Quebeckers. Little more than a year after winning the Québec provincial popular vote, Charest found himself ranked behind both Bouchard and Mario Dumont in public approval and esteem. There are multiple dimensions to Charests problems:
- The Liberals are divided. Attempting to balance both Anglophone federalists and Francophone nationalists is devilishly difficult. Charest hasnt developed the touch to avoid falling between these stools. The effort makes for mushy compromises irritating both factions and lacking bite in responding to the government.
- It is hard being opposition leader. The government holds almost all of the cards in its ability to announce programs, manipulate information, command media attention, and ultimately to call an election. And if times are good, it is harder to criticize the government without appearing feckless in criticism or saying me too, but more so. That said, Charest has not handled his role as opposition leader particularly well. He was absent when the PQ mishandled reports of massive health care funds being held in Toronto banks. He has fumbled reactions to the federal Liberals Clarity Bill and been unable to develop either a position uniquely opposed or coincident with Bill 99 (the PQs riposte to the federal Clarity Bill).
- The fumbling has led to the perception that he isnt intellectually up to the job. This gravitas problem may be a bum rap. World class intellect doesnt mean world class leadership. Still, Charest has never had the reputation of an intellectual heavyweight and Québeckers pay some attention to intellectual heft, e.g., Bouchard, Parizeau, Daniel Johnson, and Trudeau. Charests great strength is his passionate commitment to federalism, and if federalism/referendum is not in the forefront of public discussion, he risks appearing as Jean one-note.
- Charest doesnt really want to be in Québec. It doesnt matter whether he masters his briefs, he just isnt interested in water treatment facilities in Chicoutimi or emergency room nurses at Dorval. Charest has repeatedly left the impression with observers that what he really wanted in life was to be prime minister of Canada and that he misses politics in Ottawa. Québeckers are willing to admit that this is a worthy, even noble, objective; but it is not their view of an appropriate objective for a provincial Québec politician. His reluctance to be drafted into a savior role was palatable; the disappointment in his failing to meet expectations was profound, both for him personally and for those who had set aside their own ambitions for Liberal leadership.
There are some positives. One retired Liberal member of the National Assembly, previously critical of Charest, believes that he is doing better. Other observers suggest that he has improved his ability to reach beyond his inner circle of federal Tory colleagues and is learning how to be both a provincial and a Liberal politician. Indeed, he has campaigned hard for a strong Liberal party endorsement at their party congress in October. He also has the strength of perceived weakness. There is no obvious alternative to Charest or that individual would have been made party leader in 1998. Moreover, deposing him would likely be politically messy and simultaneously deprive federalists of their strongest, most passionate proponent for Canadian unity.
Nevertheless, there is an old saying that you have only one chance to make a first impression. It is complemented by the more hopeful observation that overcoming a bad first impression is possible, but takes time. Unfortunately, Charest not only seems to have made a bad first impression, but subsequent experience seems to have reinforced that judgment with the audience he most needs to convert: nationalistic Francophones.
The mystery of Mario
Mario Dumont is the oldest thirty year old in Canada. Or so goes the observation about the leader of the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ). He seems to have been prominent in Québec politics since birth. In two elections, Dumont has moved from political oddity to political institution without creating a defining impression. Nevertheless, the ADQ continues to generate the sense that it is a parking lot rather than a party. Certainly, Dumont is not an aparatnik. He is not spending day and night at the grassroots in the classic party-building role: organize, organize, organize. And when you have finished that objective, organize some more. So while some predict that Dumont will be joined by other ADQ members of the National Assembly following the next election, it remains impossible to envision him in the role of prime minister or even opposition leader.
That said, Dumont is hardly irrelevant in Québec politics. Indeed, the vested wisdom contends that as long as his support remains over ten percent, he will attract sufficient Francophone votes to prevent Charest/Liberals from winning an election. Thus the wry contending observations: (a) Bouchard should do anything necessary to keep Dumont happy in his role as gadfly third echelon opposition, e.g., bigger office, more visibility in Question Period; while (b) the Liberals should do anything necessary to get Dumont out of politics, e.g., a lucrative bank directorship. The third possibility, that the PQ could co-opt Dumont with an offer of a ministerial portfolio seems less likely, both because Dumonts supporters do not appear transferable to the PQ and his fit with the PQ does not appear good on any level.
Nevertheless, the question remains about what motivates ADQ supporters. And for the moment, it must remain unresolved. Polls suggest ADQers would split roughly fifty-fifty between sovereignists and federalists in another referendum. There are indications that young professionals find the ADQs more conservative economic platform attractive (some suggest that the ADQ is the provincial Tory party ideologically). Others find the ADQ a convenient parking place for those tired of the same old, same old themes from PQ and Liberals, wanting neither to encourage Bouchard to hold another referendum nor to reward Charest with an unearned mandate.