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July 2002

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Quebec at Midyear 2002: Puzzles in Process

The author, a retired senior U. S. diplomat who writes extensively on Canadian affairs, brings his background in the field to bear on an assessment of the current state of play in U. S.-Canadian relations as they bear upon Quebec. Among other findings, he notes that "the reality of Quebec sovereignty is that its time may have passed."—Ed.

Quebec in midyear 2002 offers more questions than answers: Why is the Parti Quebois (PQ) in a death spiral? Is Mr. Dumont really "Super Mario" or is the Alliance for Democracy (ADQ) boom a bubble for the popping? Can the ADQ win the next election; could it govern if it wins? Why have the Liberals and Jean Charest failed to prosper? Is sovereignty finally "yesterday's question?"

To know where we are now, it is useful to review the bidding.

Where we were. A year ago, Bernard Landry was the newly installed Quebec premier, having replaced Lucien Bouchard, who stimulated by a combination of personal and professional frustration and an honest desire to spend more time with a young family, had abruptly retired. Landry, a lifelong Pequiste activist and "minister of everything" in the Parizeau and Bouchard governments, promised continued professional stewardship of Quebec's economy and renewed attention to Quebec sovereignty. Landry quickly picked (or stumbled into) some fights with Ottawa over sovereignty, and the polls suggested that the PQ was looking a little tired and in a mid-mandate slump. The Liberals were leading (but the figures still suggested personal satisfaction with Landry and the PQ government) while the support for the Alliance for Democracy (ADQ) had risen from single digits into the teens.

Consequently, the Liberals and their leader Jean Charest seemed to be developing some momentum; in particular, Charest appeared to be overcoming the impression that he would always be a transplanted federal Tory. The ADQ and its leader Mario Dumont, "the oldest 30 year old in politics," were going nowhere. Their rise in the polls was regarded as reflecting "parked votes" by those vaguely dissatisfied with the PQ, and Dumont was neither organizing extensively at the grassroots nor able to raise money.

Where we are. The ADQ won three of four by-elections on 17 June taking the seats from the PQ; it leads the polls with steadily rising numbers. The Liberals are second (but in disarray), and the Pequistes are third (and sounding increasingly desperate). Landry has shuffled his Cabinet, but instead of renewal generated animosity without any influx of energy; the economy is performing well, but it is taken for granted. The polls suggest that despite 40 percent support for a "yes" along the lines of the 1995 referendum question on sovereignty, over 80 percent of the population doesn't want another sovereignty debate/referendum. It is not a scenario that anyone would have predicted in June 2001.

So why has this happened? First, those whose sole focus in politics is "It's the economy, stupid" are wrong. One cannot say that the Quebec economy has never been better, but on many important indices it is doing very well. The provincial budget is balanced; debt has declined; taxes are lower; the economy is growing; and employment is rising. Quebec is even doing well in comparison to the rest of Canada, and compares better with Ontario than often in the past. Second, there is no dramatic social unrest: health care is always a "crisis" but it is no longer an emergency; $5 per day child care is immensely popular; the metropolitan amalgamations now stimulate grumbles rather than rage. Third, the sovereignty debate has quieted; it is always there, but Landry reads the polls and knows that now is not the time to irritate the electorate. Finally, there are no blatant scandals; no minister with a hand in the cookie jar up to the shoulder or high profile sexual indiscretions. The media suggest instances of benign incompetence rather than malign malfeasance.

Even the most severe critics of Premier Landry and the PQ will admit (albeit grudgingly in some instances) that the Pequistes have delivered "good government"—normally the basic test for reelection. It is not enough; the government is poised to lose the coming election whenever it is held.

The prospect of looming defeat is not lightly held or expressed by uninitiated opponents. All recognize that in politics a week is a lifetime, and no one now expects the election until at least spring 2003. However, polls, "buzz," and analysis all concur. A senior Bloc Québecois official stated bluntly that it would take "a miracle" for the PQ to win the next election. A long-term sovereignist agreed with that judgment. A highly regarded Francophone journalist said "they don't make miracles that big in Quebec." The most hopeful, a current PQ MNA, said "We can't make any other mistakes." So again the question: What has gone wrong?Fatigue. The government is tired and the electorate is tired of the government. Although the PQ was only elected in 1994, it seems longer. One anecdote recalled an individual who said, "The PQ has been for 20 years." Another argued that Landry was seeking the PQ's "fifth mandate" counting the 1994 election; the succession from Parizeau to Bouchard; the Bouchard 1998 election; and the Landry succession from Bouchard. Moreover, it has been an emotionally exhausting period for a politically engaged individual, combining not just the 1995 referendum, but continued alarms and excitements over sovereignty, the 1998 provincial and the 2000 federal elections, an economic roller coaster, metropolitan mergers, and political churning among senior PQ officials.

There is also a degree of internal fatigue traced by one observer to the quarterly PQ internal reviews that leave the government always recovering from the last and preparing for the next. Clearly the carping from critics wore at Bouchard; technically, the PQ might benefit from moving to annual reviews, but its labor movement origins militate for close accountability. This is no longer a "band of brothers;" caucus and Cabinet collegiality appear minimal.

Confusion in Government. There is a general impression that Landry botched the December 2001 Cabinet shuffle. Some still argue that the previous Cabinet had a good blend of senior experience and youth and didn't need to be altered. But the government talked about being "old" and the media picked up the theme of a need for renewal. Good enough, but in the process of retiring senior ministers, Landry managed to alienate some individually (so that they quit in a huff rather than sitting as backbenchers or in lesser positions). Simultaneously, he also left the impression of being critical of the older generation (of whom at sixty-two Landry must be counted a member). The size of the revamped Cabinet reached dimensions that were risible in magnitude.

Even the effort to be "clean" was mismanaged with a senior official forced out for actions that were not illegal; petulant insiders wondered who might be next.

Out of Touch. Subsequently, in criticizing the ADQ and its supporters, a Quebec minister (Rita Dionne-Marsolais) characterized Gen-X ADQ supporters as "selfish"—presumably because they were not interested in committing to great projects such as Quebec sovereignty. Apologies were instantly in order, but the impression was one of being "out of touch" with popular opinion. The PQ has emphasized the feds owe Quebec billions and construct elaborate scenarios to secure such "booty," but seem to miss the need to explain convincingly why there are staffing/service cuts in local hospitals. Likewise the social welfare, dirigiste state that has comforted the 44 percent of taxpayers who pay no taxes has increasingly grated on the 56 percent who pay, and pay, and now seem tired of paying still more. Buried in their "Quebec model" the PQ (and for that matter the Liberals also) has missed the attractions of neo-conservatism.

Decline of Sovereignty Issue. No matter how far onto the back burner the PQ places Quebec sovereignty, it remains their core rational for political existence. Yet during a period when 84 percent of the electorate doesn't want another referendum/sovereignty debate, it would be suicide to push the issue to the fore. Nevertheless, PQ hard liners want their interests emphasized (and Landry is willing to oblige) so Quebeckers are constantly reminded through media coverage of this neuralgic concern—and that a PQ government is devoted to this disturbing objective. On the other hand, the PQ cannot drop the issue as sovereignists are its most active and dedicated party workers and organizers—and an independent Quebec is a basic, not a casual, commitment. It is a circle that cannot be squared. And voters now recognize that if there is never going to be sovereignty—or at least not into the extended future, Quebec will never get more from federalist Ottawa with the PQ in power. Therefore, the PQ becomes an expensive adolescent expense—like a flashy sports car with high repair bills and insurance costs that you can't drive in the winter.

On a subsidiary note, PQ membership and hence fund raising and contributions have fallen. Quebec's election rules prohibit big money contributions by unions and corporations, hence "the mother's milk of politics" is in short supply when the PQ may most need it.

Thus the conclusion, even by normally supportive analysts, that the PQ "needs to sit down for a while" and gather new focus and coherence through a period in opposition. At this point, they can only hope that once the PQ sits down, it will eventually rise again.

Okay, I Understand What Happened to the PQ, but Why Don't the Liberals Benefit?

For a generation, Quebec has been distinct in Canada. Perhaps not as a "distinct society" for which it sought recognition during the constitutional battles of the 1980's-90's, but certainly a "distinct polity." That is, in contrast to other provinces and federal politics where at least three parties are serious competitors, Quebec has had only two serious political parties: federalists and anti-federalists. Both the Parti Québecois and the Quebec Liberals have included social and economic elements that are not natural allies; sometimes their only compatible point was support (or opposition) to Quebec sovereignty. To win the Liberals needed to build on their Anglophone/Allophone fortress in Montreal by appealing to Francophones in suburban and rural areas. In contrast the PQ had to hold these rural ridings and add suburban areas; the vagaries of vote distributions permit them to win a smashing parliamentary majority (as was the case in 1998) without even a plurality of the popular vote. Consequently, with nothing to disturb these patterns, the rotation in office between the PQ and the Liberals grew to appear "normal." Such is no longer the case.

At the beginning of 2002, reading the polls and sensing the tide against the PQ, commentators started to talk about "Prime Minister Charest." Anointed, but not elected, Charest began to look inevitable but still did not generate much popular enthusiasm for this inevitability. The turnabout came with the ADQ by-election victory in April; subsequent polling indicated that Dumont was more popular than either Charest or Landry. The poll was dismissed initially as an aberration, but then repeated. Quebeckers, almost by internal caucusing, recognized that they had a third choice

—Dumont—and began a closer examination of him and the ADQ option.

To a degree the Liberals are suffering from success, both provincial prosperity and the decline of sovereignist fervor. There is no need to elect an economic expert such as the Liberal premier Robert Bourassa to salvage the province from recession or to retain/reward the authors of current prosperity, the PQ. Indeed, current prosperity and the prospect for more has left the electorate free to consider an untested alternative such as the ADQ. Likewise, one could say that the Liberals have "won" the sovereignty debate (or at least chased the sovereignists from the battlefield). As such there is lessened interest either in encouraging the sovereignists by reelecting the PQ (and giving them another shot at a referendum) or in electing the Liberals to counter a sovereignist tide that has already ebbed.

And Charest? Whatever was the "mojo" or the "groove" that made Jean Charest into "Captain Canada" and the man who pulled more votes in 1998 election than Bouchard, he has lost it. As a provincial politician, Charest looks, well, ordinary. He has done all that he should do in internal party building; he has assiduously visited rural Francophone ridings multiple times per year. He has hewed to a Quebec nationalist line, insisting on his devotion to Quebec interests. And yet, yet…

Observers grope for individual explanations. For one, it is that Charest sounds "angry" when speaking (previously his speeches were described as passionate, even charismatic). For another, he still leaves the impression that he would be happier in Ottawa or at least somewhere else (one observer suggested "in the Bahamas.") An example is cited: On the evening of 1 June, the Parliamentary Press Dinner in Ottawa coincided with an ongoing Liberal Party event. Rather than smooze with provincial Liberals for the evening, Charest hustled to Ottawa for a high profile federal political affair (and then hurried back to the Liberal events on Sunday).

Critics suggest that rural Francophone voters will never trust him. They believe him to be a right of center politician who created such a platform for his 1993 federal Tories and extrapolated it into an Ontario premier "Mike Harris lite" agenda at the beginning of the 1998 Quebec campaign. No matter what he says in 2002, they "know" what he really thinks.

Thus the Liberals are frustrated and flailing about for remedies to a malady they have never before encountered. Indeed, they don't know if they have the political equivalent of a summer cold or pneumonia.

Super Mario or Summer Romance? With his series of by-election victories, Mario Dumont has caught the lightening. But can he harness it into productive electricity that will run the dynamos of a government or will it incinerate him?

For years Dumont was a one-man band in Quebec City, the only ADQ MNA and unable to generate a larger breakthrough. He was managed with kid gloves by the PQ with whom he was allied in the 1995 referendum "yes" camp and because the votes he drew came primarily from the Liberals. He was derided by the Liberals who painted him as a turncoat for abandoning the Liberals (he was the leader of the Young Liberals before breaking with then premier Bourassa over his unwillingness to push for greater Quebec powers). As recently as last year, he was described as going nowhere, with the ADQ virtually devoid of funding, and Dumont not committed to the grassroots "organize, organize, organize" philosophy that is the substitute for money among militants of every stripe.

Voters now have warmed to Dumont. Some characterize him as growing up with them. Once a painfully intense adolescent, he is now a husband and father. Rather than trek from Quebec City to Montreal as do so many MNA's, he has a home in the QC suburbs. Moreover, he has a core appeal to those tired of being the tax champions of North America; rising Gen-X yuppies salivate over keeping more of their incomes. Others are just tired of the red tape of the Pequist state. One vignette cites two former PQ organizers now working for the ADQ; they transferred allegiance after attempting to cope with the paperwork to start their own business.

Nevertheless, the challenge now is daunting. Dumont must transform a "mom and pop" operation into one that is competitive throughout Quebec. He must project an air of assured competence that he can be a premier at 32 without ever having operated in government. He must find capable political lieutenants and learn to trust them—even when they make mistakes. He must screen potential candidates for "crazies" who will self-destruct in mid campaign. He must manage the flood of newly interested enthusiasts, channeling their excitement and making it productive and coherent. He must raise serious funding and locate technical experts in media, polling, and public relations. He must work 24 hours a day, look as if he is enjoying every second, and still find time for his wife and family. He has about a year to manage these complexities before a campaign puts it all to the test.

Substantively, Dumont must iron out the wrinkles in a campaign platform that has clear disconnects between his proposals and available revenues. Media are now taking him seriously enough to ask tough questions about resource allocation and how he will pay for a slew of new promises (the judgment was a $1.9 billion disconnect between promises and tax revenue). To date the electorate has not been bothered by the ADQ's substantive inconsistencies. One poll revealed that 80 percent of respondents could not identify a single ADQ proposal. It was enough through the 17 June elections that Mario was Mario.

But this hiatus will not last; the PQ has begun to belabor Dumont/ADQ as insufficiently committed to Quebec sovereignty—attempting to force Dumont into a position that will pry Francophone votes back to the PQ. Media questioning will become more searching. While he doesn't need perfect substantive coherence (and one observer noted that his platform was as coherent as was the Liberals 1998 effort), he needs to patch up some of its holes during the summer respite.

An Election. It is a mugs game to attempt to forecast timing of an election in a parliamentary system. In a 5-year mandate, the norm would be to drop the writ in the vicinity of the 4-year mark; to stay until the very end of the mandate is interpreted as recognizing that you will lose, but determined to stay until the bitter end. An unpopular government, however, is virtually forced to stay until the end; after all, in the punch line to the old joke, "The horse may learn to talk." Thus the current "best bet" predictions project the election no sooner than the spring of 2003, and perhaps delayed until after the summer.

What is apparent, however, is that it will be a three party race. All assume that the ADQ is "for real" and that regardless where it finishes in the race, it has become a serious player. One can imagine scenarios where it wins, holds the balance of power between Liberals and PQ, becomes the official opposition against a Liberal government, or finishes strong rising third place against a waning PQ.

Likewise, it seems clear that the ADQ has room to grow. Dumont has adroitly straddled the sovereignty issue; having voted "yes" in 1995, he immediately called for a 10-year moratorium on further sovereignty action. That option still sounds good to many Quebeckers. Another hypothesis suggests that rural Francophones will watch the polls closely. Opposed to the Liberals, they will vote strategically and switch from PQ to ADQ in individual ridings to prevent Liberal victories.

Does Landry Resign? There is a superficial attraction to a scenario in which premier Landry, having stumbled from cesspool to tar pit during his regime decides to resign. After all, he reportedly considered resignation and ending his political career following the death of his wife, but Bouchard's unexpected resignation thrust the premiership into his hands. The scenario continues with the PQ selecting a prominent female (Pauline Mauois) to characterize its new, forward thinking attitudes. Clever speculation, but unlikely; it misreads Landry's tenacity.

In Isaiah Berlin's division of men into "hedgehogs" and "foxes," Landry is a hedgehog. He knows and holds to one great truth: that Quebec should be an independent country. To this end, he has devoted his political life; he has no other objective. If Quebec sovereignty is to come in his politically active lifetime, the PQ must win the next election. If he does not run and win, his life's work will end unfulfilled. And in practical terms, any successor must run on the record compiled by Parizeau, Bouchard, and Landry. One recalls how the Liberals in 1993 characterized Kim Campbell, the brightly minted new female PM, as "Mulroney in a skirt."

According to a senior Pequist close to Landry, he will not resign. Two weeks before the 17 June by-elections, he was realistic (and accurate) about the outcome. His projection was that following the election, PQ officials should take a month of vacation. Upon their return, senior personnel/ministers will caucus and seek the best ways to regroup and recover lost ground and devise counters for the ADQ surge. And One Option Is a Referendum. That is, a referendum not on Quebec sovereignty, but on demanding that Ottawa transfer tax points (and consequently substantial revenue) to Quebec.

Intellectually, it is an interesting concept rooted in the prevailing belief that the money is in Ottawa and the problems are in Quebec. Indeed, all three Quebec political parties are on record as favoring such a funds transfer; likewise, Ottawa is on record in dismissing it out of hand.

So why bother?

ProsCons
An investment that could return billions to QuebecCost would be $50 million
A unified endorsement by all three parties advances Quebec interests.Ottawa already has said no
Consults the people prior to an election; makes their concerns clearly knownExpensive; combine with an election
Other provinces are holding referendums on specific issues (BC on native issues)Save referendum for sovereignty question

Probably the more compelling "pros" for the PQ are psychological. By conceiving and executing a referendum with "winning conditions," the PQ regains some lost initiative and confidence. The other major parties virtually must join the PQ bandwagon or be labeled as indifferent to Quebec fiscal concerns, and the PQ burnishes its claim to be foremost in advancing Quebec interests. When Ottawa rejects the demand for further transfers, as it has already announced it would, the PQ would gain new arguments for its sovereignty objective. Weighed against it are the gimmicky nature of the exercise and the transparency of the rationale; it smacks of desperation rather than dedication, and it compromises the PQ commitment to sovereignty by advancing an initiative to reform federalism rather than working to end it.

Such a referendum is definitely under consideration. A senior Pequiste noted that the government intended to consult elements of the civil society and that a decision would be made in September.

Interestingly, the prospect for such a referendum excites the interest of the virtually dead (1.8 percent support in a recent poll) Equality Party. Its spokesmen visualize "yes" and "no" committees, as required by provincial rules for referendums, in which Equality would be the only representative for "no." Their argument would be that Canada is already a highly decentralized federation and that taking more money from Ottawa would further weaken federalism. While they would expect to lose since the Liberals, ADQ, and PQ already support the proposal, Equality would benefit from the publicity and hope it could be parlayed into political relevance.

Quebec Sovereignty: Not Dead but in a Coma

For several years, analysts have played the old Monty Python line about the dead parrot, "Not dead, but sleeping" to describe the Quebec sovereignty movement. During the past year, however, sovereignty has moved into slumber so deep it is akin to a coma. Previously, there were serious conversations over why Quebeckers were not interested in discussing sovereignty. Now when sovereignty is discussed at all, the pertinent statistic is that over 80 percent of the population does not want a referendum or a sovereignty debate. Still the hard fact remains that approximately 40 percent of the population would vote "yes" to the 1995 referendum question. Why has this group not only given up, but doesn't even want to talk about it?

Post 9/11 World. Occasionally one thinks that every circumstance (or noncircumstance) since September 11, 2001, is being tied to that catastrophe. Still there is a resonance to the extent that global, and notably U.S., attention has been focused on fighting terrorism. While on the surface an independent Quebec would appear to have no relationship to Bin Laden terrorism, the previous presence of terrorists in Montreal would raise questions about the stability of an independent Quebec. The need to work out separate rules of access to the U.S. market at a point when we are struggling with federal Canada over increased security would be a further complication.

Emotional Fatigue. For many Quebeckers, the 1995 referendum experience was not exhilarating but exhausting. A country was almost lost (or won) and with .6 percent or about 50,000 votes separating the sides, it was a profoundly divisive exercise often splitting families and alienating friends. As the effort has been made twice in the lifetimes of many adults—and been emotionally brutal each time—sovereignty supporters are unwilling to return to it unless the potential for victory is very high.

Loss of Charismatic Leadership. During much of its 25-year modern history, Quebec sovereignty was epitomized by dramatic leadership. The 1980 referendum was driven by Rene Levesque; the 1995 referendum by Lucien Bouchard. Both could reach out beyond the limits of reality and inspire audiences with their sense of the possible dream. Today, Bouchard is out of politics; Jacques Parizeau's name barely registers in the media. The custodian of the dream, Bernard Landry, lacks neither commitment to nor passion for sovereignty, but has found no way to make that passion seem possible outside the ranks of the true believers. His persona is pompous and bureaucratic rather than compelling.

Weight of New Rules. Many observers conclude that the rigor and complexities associated with the federal "Clarity Act" make it de facto impossible for Quebec to leave Canada legally. The requirement for a "clear" question and a "clear" majority, neither determined in advance, suggest to the cynical that in federal courts no close vote and any question more vague than "Quebec should separate from Canada and become an independent state" would pass muster.

Quebec's riposte in "Bill 99" to the effect that Quebec will determine its own rules is being fought out in the courts. The result, however, has been what one observer described as the "abused spouse" syndrome; the spouse (Quebec) would like to leave if she had her 'druthers, but twice the courts (Ottawa) have sent her back into the relationship. Without fresh incentive to act, nothing further will be done.

Nostalgia/Retro Rather than Relevance. Times change; issues move on; passions ebb with generations. The "lift of a driving dream" energizes each generation—but often it is a different dream. Somehow in the passing of the sovereignty baton from the "boomers" to their children and grandchildren, the baton has been dropped or at least it is being fumbled. If U.S. boomers were inspired by John Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country … bear any burden" rhetoric, their children in many instances just wanted to make money ("greed is good"). Perhaps, as one analyst offered, Francophones now believe that their culture and society is sufficiently protected by Bill 101 and the continued vibrancy of French that they have the "game" if not the "name." Hence the pain of the long divisive and expensive effort to achieve sovereignty isn't worth the effort. After all, Canada is not the gulag.

Committed sovereignists cast about for a mechanism to revive the past. Despite the conditions of the Clarity Act, they believe that that a clear question can be devised, e.g., "Resolved that Canada should become a confederation." or "Under the provisions of C-20, a new federal-provincial relationship should be negotiated." With a referendum victory, anything becomes possible; but without a PQ government, sovereignty prospects are postponed indefinitely

Thus the reality of Quebec sovereignty is that its time may have passed. Globalization arguably is making nations less relevant; the modern high tech savvy young Quebeckers who would drive a theoretical Quebec state in the 21st century believe themselves citizens of the world not bound by the borders of Canada, let alone those of Quebec. So sovereignty sits quietly in the attic of possible futures, currently gathering dust, but available for rediscovery by a fresh set of enthusiasts.

The U.S. Continues to Hold a "Watching Brief"
For U.S. diplomacy, it remains a time of respite. New consuls general were installed in summer 2001 at our consulates in Montreal and Quebec City and provide regular appreciations of Quebec developments. Ambassador Paul Cellucci, former governor of Massachusetts, is long past his once candid implication that his state’s relations with an independent Quebec would not change from their current circumstances; he knows our "mantra" (which he delivers infrequently but as required) avoiding such commentary.

Indeed, our concerns post 9/11 have focused on security and border control; otherwise, there are the standard litany of trade disputes, most pointedly over much of the past year, on softwood lumber. If asked about Quebec sovereignty, we will our preference for Canadian unity clear. No one with a primary school education can doubt our desire for a peaceful, unified Canada and a continued bilateral relationship along the lines that we have developed and maintained for more than a century. We have and will continue to avoid speculation of the "what if?" nature; hypotheticals on Quebec independence are not helpful, and if hypotheticals ever become realities, we will address them on the day thereof.

August 2, 2002


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.

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