Analysis: Strong leader needed to revive PQ credibility
By RHÉAL SÉGUIN
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2003
Quebec After yesterday's setback, the Parti Québécois is at a crossroads: The choice of a new leader to replace Bernard Landry will dictate whether the PQ stops masquerading as a sovereigntist party or shows the courage of its convictions.
The election has shown that Mr. Landry's leadership or lack of it was the main cause of the PQ's defeat and the unravelling of the sovereignty movement. He refused to stake his political future on making it clear to voters where he stood on sovereignty, and he paid dearly for his ambiguity.
Voters rejected Mr. Landry's "transition" plan to examine a so-called "confederal union" between Quebec and the rest of Canada, which appeared to many sovereigntists as an ambivalent attempt to soft-pedal the party's option. It will take strong leadership to restore credibility in a party torn between wanting power and acting on its beliefs.
But there is no obvious successor with the type of vision Jacques Parizeau offered the last time the PQ was rebuilding.
Mr. Parizeau left last week for his vineyard in France, stung at being dumped from the campaign after Liberal Leader Jean Charest said that the former premier had reaffirmed his comment that sovereignty was defeated in the 1995 referendum by "money and the ethnic vote." And he didn't want to be around to see the sovereignty option crippled as it was in the PQ's 1985 defeat under leader Pierre Marc Johnson.
There are differences between now and then. Mr. Parizeau mounted a putsch against Mr. Johnson, who replaced sovereignty with a type of renewed federalism called "national affirmation." However, no hard-line sovereigntists are waiting in the wings today, and the rest of Canada has no desire to change the federal system to recognize Quebec as a nation.
Status-quo federalism is here to stay and the PQ must choose how to deal with this political reality.
Under Mr. Parizeau, whose government took office in September of 1994, the choice was clear: A PQ government would hold a referendum on sovereignty and would separate from Canada if it won. In mid-August, 1995, Lucien Bouchard, who was then the Bloc Québécois leader, and Action Démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont sat down with Mr. Parizeau to decide the date of the referendum.
Mr. Bouchard had succeeded in imposing his view that the referendum should be not only on sovereignty but also on maintaining ties with Canada. Mr. Parizeau agreed, as long as sovereignty would not be dictated by the outcome of negotiations to achieve an economic and political partnership.
At the meeting, Mr. Parizeau unveiled PQ polls that showed support for sovereignty at 46 per cent and said the referendum would be the next October, giving the other two leaders no choice. The PQ lost the referendum by fewer than 55,000 votes.
Mr. Bouchard took over the PQ in January of 1996 and introduced controversial cutbacks in health care, education and social programs. He led his party to a second consecutive mandate in November of 1998, attempting to revamp his right-wing image by promising $5-a-day daycare and pay equity. It was clear that the PQ would focus on governing a province rather than achieving nationhood.
One week before the vote, Radio-Canada released a poll showing support for sovereignty at 47 per cent. However, Mr. Bouchard could not bring himself to campaign on a promise to hold another referendum. The day after the election, he put sovereignty on the back burner.
"Obviously the first part of the mandate will have to be devoted to the achievement of good government," he said.
Two years later, Mr. Bouchard quit politics. Campaigning to succeed him, Mr. Landry promised to place sovereignty at the forefront of the PQ government agenda and suggested ways to breathe new life into the movement.
Mr. Landry came into office like a lion, scoffing at the federal government's postreferendum propaganda campaign in Quebec and referring to the Canadian flag as a "red rag." He was soon tamed, however, fighting for improvements to federalism and defending Quebec's provincial interests.
Most Quebeckers still do not support sovereignty, nor do they express any desire for another referendum soon. But sovereignty remains strong in the political spectrum and isn't about to disappear.
Quebec voters despise inertia, political masquerades and weak leadership. And unless the PQ can prove to voters that the party is authentic and sincere, internal divisions will grow, forcing sovereigntists to look for alternatives that now appear marginal at best.