Politics and the Mulroney/Bourassa Alliance

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Latouche, D. “Politics and the Mulroney/Bourassa Alliance.”
The New Federation 1.3 (1989): 20-22.
Politics and the Mulroney/Bourassa Alliance

By Daniel Latouche
PUZZLE #1: How did the Conservatives, in the 1988 election, improve on their 1984 performance while losing ground in the rest of the country?

PUZZLE #2: What did Robert Bourassa hope to gain by publicly, and so actively, supporting the Conservatives?

PUZZLE #3: Why is Brian Mulroney not using his present electoral strength to build a provincial Conservative Party in Quebec?
Quebec politics, not unlike the murderous butler in British mysteries, is on the move again. The strange bedfellows of Canadian politics are none other than the leaders of the arch-rival Liberals and Conservatives. “Les bleus” and “les rouges” used to fight like cats and dogs in Quebec. But not any more. Not since the “sacred alliance” took shape soon after the election of both men.

But then, nothing is sacred any more in Quebec.

Some manifestations of this new exuberance are old stuff: language graffiti in Montreal; public rallies at the Paul Sauvé Arena, that old favourite of the nationalist crowd. All this while Robert Bourassa was trying to impose an unpopular language bill on both the francophone and anglophone electorates. Sound familiar?

Obviously, reports of the death of Quebec nationalism are somewhat exaggerated. It’s alive, kicking, and raising eyebrows again. Some of the questions, a few of the answers, and most of the newly emerging political realignments are quite surprising. Here is a sampler of what is now being discussed in the cafés of the Rue St. Denis and the new condos in Outremont: “Is the recent Supreme Court ruling on Bill 101 a blessing in disguise?” “How best to turn Montreal into an international city while leaving Toronto ‘in charge’ of Canada?” “Will the emerging Quebec business bourgeoisie succeed where the intellectuals and the artists failed?”

Everywhere the question has become: “But do we really need Canada, a country which is so unsure of itself as to be afraid of free trade with the Americans and still so blind to Quebec that it confuses the treatment and position of Anglo-Quebecers with that of French-Canadian minorities in Alberta?”

The fact that Quebec nationalism has so easily survived the Referendum defeat, the electoral collapse of the Parti Quebecois, the death of René Lévesque, and the rise of the francophone entrepreneurs souls sends everyone – especially professional observers of the Quebec scene – back to their books.

What makes the present state of Quebec politics so fascinating and so difficult to interpret, is this mixture of the old and the new. Sovereignty is still being talked about, but not along the same lines. Federalism is again being attacked – and defended – but not with the same arguments.

Clearly, Quebec politics does not need the provisions of the Meech Lake Accord to abide by a distinct set of political rules. The problem is that Quebec now insists on being an active player on the federal scene while retaining all that makes it different. And nowhere was this more evident than in the last federal election.

A Stroke of Genius by Mulroney
Politicians who understood the implications of the new Quebec political scene – and Brian Mulroney surely stands at the top of this category – did well at the Quebec polls. Those who understood it well, but were caught up in the old ways of doing things – think of John Turner – did not do very well. And those who understood nothing, but thought they knew it all – should we mention the NDP? – went from nowhere to nowhere, but this time faster than in previous elections.

Brian Mulroney is certainly no student of history, and certainly no friend of Quebec nationalism, but there are a few things he understands about recent Quebec history and nationalism. First, he realized soon enough that the greatest pool of untapped electoral strength in Quebec lay with the Parti Quebecois vote which, through bad years and good, has managed to hold steady at around thirty-five percent of the electorate. This is more than the opposition party often manages to obtain in all provincial legislatures. No federal party has ever been able to capture a significant share of this prize. For obvious reasons, Pierre Trudeau never tried; the NDP has always thought about it, and the Social Credit Party of Fabien Roy (remember him?) did not succeed either.

True, a large segment of the PQ electorate does not bother to vote in federal elections, but those who do are not particularly inclined to support the centralist position of the NDP or the perceived anti-Quebec stand of the Liberals. Even those who do not vote are “available” if given sufficient reason; Quebec non-voters change from election to election and, except for the solid Liberal support among Quebec anglophones, no segment of the electorate is permanently committed to a federal party.

Brian Mulroney was certainly not the first federal leader to make this analysis. Joe Clark and David Lewis made it before him. But Mulroney was the first to realize that this goal would remain out of reach if the federal Conservative Party persisted in its old strategy of building a strong provincial base in Quebec. Eventually, Brian Mulroney was able to turn the Conservatives’ major weakness in Quebec – the absence of a Quebec Conservative Party – into its greatest asset.

As long as there is no provincial Conservative Party, Brian Mulroney makes it possible for PQ supporters to vote Conservative at the federal level and even makes it acceptable for provincial Liberals, especially those who belong to the nationalist wing of the Party, to switch allegiance in federal elections. As a fringe benefit, Mulroney also saves himself the difficulty of having to deal with a Quebec wing which, as the NDP and the Liberals have shown, would rapidly become jealous of its independence and eventually break away from any federal tutelage.

But it takes two to tango. What about Robert Bourassa in all of this?

The Concern of Robert Bourassa
Even though his party slipped ten points in the public opinion polls after the government’s decision to put Quebec back on the road to becoming a bilingual province, Robert Bourassa remains the strong man of Quebec politics.

But when you are on top, you worry, and in his case the concerns have little to do with a resurgence of independence. Even the prospect of the imminent collapse of the Meech Lake Accord would not send him tumbling down in the polls. The Parti Quebecois has already recognized that it will not be able to make much political mileage out of such a failure.

In recent months, Robert Bourassa has been worried about the possible total collapse of the Parti Quebecois – which would inevitably favour the emergence of a new opposition party, certainly less social-democrat and nationalist than the PQ. This would spell trouble for his own Liberals.

This is precisely what happened before when the Union National disappeared in the early 1970s. At the time, the PQ needed only to tone down some of its separatist and socialist rhetoric and wait for a tired government to fall. It did in November 1976.

When Old Friends Meet
There is more to the Mulroney/Bourassa alliance than mere electoral strategies. In the early 1970s, when Robert Bourassa was looking for a management representative to sit on the Commission looking into labour violence at the James Bay hydroelectric site, he turned to Brian Mulroney.

The Cliche Commission, named after Judge Robert Cliche, the popular one-time NDP leader in Quebec, also included a rising union leader, Guy Chevrette, now Parliamentary Leader of the Parti Quebecois. The Commission marked Mulroney’s political coming-of-age. For the first time, he met and worked with “real” separatists, only to realize that deals could be made with these people, and that the Trudeau strategy of scorn was not the best one. Even to this day, Brian Mulroney will refrain from any personal attack on PQ leaders and, once in a while, the veterans from the Cliche Commission meet to trade memories.

When Bourassa was thrown to the wolves in 1976, Mulroney was one of the few Canadian politicians to show support for and offer sympathy to the defeated leader. With his remarks on Bourassa as a mere hot-dog eater, incapable of showing any class, Pierre Trudeau not only contributed to the premier’s downfall, but also made certain that Mulroney and Bourassa would also have something in common: their abhorrence for the federal Liberals.

The relationship between Mulroney runs deep. Michel Gratton, Mulroney’s former Press Secretary, says in his book, So, What Are the Boys Saying?, that Bourassa was a personal friend of many years’ standing. L. Ian MacDonald, in his biography of Brian Mulroney, Mulroney: The Making of a Prime Minister, recounts that at the time of the Cliche Commission, Bourassa was caught in a significant conflict with his Minister of Justice, Jerome Choquette, as to their knowledge of a bribe paid to a Cabinet aide. Choquette gave evidence under oath before the Commission and his version of events had the ring of credibility. Bourassa’s political life might have forever been destroyed had he been called to give evidence. The Commission’s Chief Counsel, none other than Lucien Bouchard, is quoted as saying: “My plan was to put Bourassa in the box. It was the logical follow-up to Choquette.” Mulroney would have none of it. He threatened to never sit again on the Commission if a subpoena was issued to Bourassa. Mulroney got his way and racked up a major political debt from Bourassa. MacDonald notes that while Bourassa has to maintain a public air of neutrality in federal elections, “that did not prevent the Bourassa Liberals and the Mulroney Conservatives from exchanging polling information on Quebec. It did not prevent Bourassa’s chief organizer, Pierre Bibeau, from meeting on a regular and private basis with Bernard Roy, whom Mulroney had named his chief organizer for Quebec.”

For John Turner, the fact that the federal Liberals had managed to antagonize all of Quebec’s political elite and intellectual opinion makers, from René Lévesque to Robert Bourassa, was to prove an insurmountable barrier that will likely remain so for his successor.

For Robert Bourassa, the continued non-existence of the Quebec Conservative Party (QCP) remains a priority. His friendship with Mulroney will only go that far. As long as his support for Brian Mulroney helps the latter decide to go some other way than that of the QCP, he will give the Canadian prime minister all the support he can muster. If by doing so he prevents the total collapse of the PQ, so be it!

Quebec politics does, indeed, move in strange ways.
The NDP as a Mystery
Why did the federal NDP which, notwithstanding its centralist bias, had all the credentials to appeal to the PQ and nationalist electorates, decide to go the road of a provincial Nouveau Parti Democrat? Not only has this party become the laughing stock of Quebec politics – thus contributing to the rehabilitation of the PQ – but by making it a stringent rule that only officially registered members of the Quebec wing could join the federal party, the NDP made it certain that it could not attract a sufficient share of the PQ electorate. No PQ organizers and activists would be foolish enough to work, even indirectly, for a federal party which was also a competitor at the provincial level.

In the spring of 1988, as he was surfing on the crest of an ever-rising wave of popularity, Ed Broadbent went as far as declaring that the PQ and nationalism were dead in Quebec and that an official renunciation of separatism would be required of any new member who had once been known to be a PQ or sovereignty sympathizer. Broadbent not only made the headlines but also made it certain that his party had no electoral future in Quebec. In its own way, this curious decision contributed to the downfall of moderate PQ leader Pierre-Marc Johnson, who had declared himself opposed to the Free Trade deal and who, of course, would have been glad to exchange favours with the NDP.

Yes, But Will It Last?
As is always the case with high-risk political strategies, the costs in case of failure are very high. In Quebec, Bourassa is receiving high marks for being the first Quebec premier to have so successfully integrated Quebec politics within the federal realm. His clever support for free trade is seen as putting Quebec in the best position vis-à-vis arch rival Ontario.

But will the rewards come? Already Quebec is being accused of favouritism when it only gets its fair share of federal contracts and investments. For the time being the answer is yes, since Montreal has been selected as the site for the headquarters of the new federal Space Agency.

Brian Mulroney owes so much to Quebec and to Robert Bourassa that the only sensible strategy for him is to increase his strength outside Quebec. Any further electoral slippage in Ontario and the West and his Quebec stronghold will put him in the same position Pierre Trudeau found himself in after 1974. This shift would come at a very bad time for Robert Bourassa.

For the present, Quebec is back in the Canadian tent. It has stopped being on the outside, doing what those outside the tent usually do! It now expects fair treatment. Unfortunately, the definition of what is fair is not always the same on both sides of the linguistic barrier.

The Mulroney/Bourassa alliance is indeed an unprecedented one, even by Quebec standards. Except for the Free Trade Agreement and the Meech Lake Accord, there is much that separates the two leaders. For the Quebec Premier, the two agreements are but ways for Quebec to get even with Ontario and prepare for the next century. For Brian Mulroney, Meech Lake is clearly the end of the line, and his real concern is to move Canada along the road of a more conservative fiscal agenda.

True, Bourassa has moved away from his social-democrat roots, but even today his vision of a more conservative Quebec stops at the decision to sell off a few bankrupt state-owned enterprises. His vision for the future includes a more active role for the government in the fields of science and technology, family planning, university research, international economic relations, language policies, and venture capital. Mulroney will soon find out about this peculiar conservative agenda when he attempts to cut still more federal support for welfare, educational and regional assistance programs.

The clash is inevitable, and the sparks have only been made more lethal by this very intense marriage.
Daniel Latouche is a research professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montreal and is a columnist for Le Devoir.

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