Terence McKenna: Quebec's winds of change

This unusual summer election should have been the PQ's for the taking, Terence McKenna writes. But an embattled Jean Charest has come on like a freight train and the wild card Francois Legault has made this last week too close to call.

As a young reporter, the first Quebec election campaign I covered was the epic 1976 battle between Rene Levesque and Robert Bourassa.

Facing numerous corruption allegations, Bourassa’s Quebec Liberals were swept out after six years in power, losing almost three-quarters of their 102 seats, including the premier’s own riding.

Later, in a private chat at his Outremont home,  I asked Bourassa why he lost so badly and he calmly answered, "When you get pushed out of  a 20th floor window at the beginning of an election campaign, it is very difficult to stop at the 12th or 11th floor on the way down.

"You are much more likely to go all the way to the bottom."

That is the nightmare scenario haunting Premier Jean Charest in this unusual summer election.

Charest's Quebec Liberal government is also facing a raft of corruption allegations, and he went into this campaign with a 70 per cent dissatisfaction rating and the support of fewer than one in five francophone voters. 

A weekend opinion poll indicates the Liberal campaign has stalled, and pollster Jean-Marc Leger suggests the party could be headed to its worst showing since 1867.

Another poll shows Charest running 15 points behind the Parti Quebecois candidate in his Sherbrooke riding.

Deja vu?

Jean Charest has lived through similar trying times in the past. As a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister in the 1993 federal election, he and Elsie Wayne were the only survivors as Kim Campbell lost 154 of the party’s 156 seats.

Liberal leader Jean Charest, 28 years in elected politics. Sept. 4 is the anniversary.

More recently, he watched the federal Liberal party and the Bloc Quebecois receive a shellacking from Quebec voters. The winds of change blow very strongly in this province.

Charest, however, shows no sign of faltering. He came at his opponents like a freight train during a series of TV debates last week, somehow giving as good as he got on the issue of corruption.

He bursts out of his campaign bus in a whirlwind, laughing and joking with his supporters and then lambasting the competition. You get the feeling that after his eight election campaigns, he is giving it his best shot and is ready to live with whatever happens. 

He, of course, called this vote for September 4, which happens to be the 28th anniversary of his first election to the House of Commons in 1984.

He also likes to point out that he has often run behind in his own riding, that some networks even mistakenly declared him defeated there on one election night, and that he has often pulled off a miracle recovery. 

As for his opponents, this campaign should have been a cakewalk for Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois.

Her party has demonstrated in the past that it can govern, and she has proven herself a good manager in numerous cabinet portfolios over the years.

PQ leader Pauline Marois, once considered one of the party's leading moderates. Today that status is not so clear.

She was widely regarded as the party’s leading moderate, and when she assumed the leadership in the summer of 2007 she outmanoeuvred the hard-liners and put the sovereignty issue firmly on the back-burner.

Some months ago, however, she narrowly survived a party mutiny, and did so by signing onto a complicated referendum proposal that she doesn’t quite seem to understand herself. 

Her misstatements of party policy in regard to the timing of any future referendum, as well as regarding another new proposal to establish a "Quebec citizenship" law, found her under siege by reporters following the last TV debate.

Facing relentless questioning, she held her abdomen firmly with one hand, as if she was trying to brace herself or stop from exploding.

Marois apparently keeps a small book of Buddhist sayings close at hand and regularly consults it when she needs to calm down. The polls show her party leading but also stalled short of majority government territory.

The wild card

The wild card in this campaign has come in the form of  CAQ, the Coalition Avenir  Quebec, lead by former PQ minister Francois Legault, a man who is a bundle of contradictions.

He has promised to vote against sovereignty if another referendum is called, but has also said that another referendum defeat would be disastrous for Quebec.

The CAQ's Francois Legault, the wild card in this race.

He claims to be a fiscal conservative, but the dollar value of his promises is two or three times that of his main opponents.

What’s more, no one seems to believe his promise to magically provide a family doctor for every Quebecer who wants one within one year, and yet voters are flocking to him anyway.

Quebecers have always had a big appetite for contradictions, and would appear to see no problem throwing their support to the left-wing NDP in the federal election a year ago and to the right-wing CAQ today.

Voters will tell you that they are merely being consistent, in voting against the old parties, and voting for change.

As for the future, it is far from clear that even a PQ majority would mean another sovereignty referendum for Quebec, and another national unity crisis for Canada.

Former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard was very unhappy on the night of his majority victory in 1998 because he did not get over 50 per cent of the popular vote.

"How am I supposed to get over 50 per cent in a sovereignty referendum when I can’t get it now with far less at stake," he asked his advisors. He never did call that referendum.

Today, even if the PQ wins a majority, it will likely be with far less than 50 per cent of the popular vote.

That will not stop the separatists from trying to bolster their hand, and Marois is surrounded by some extremely cagey and ambitious strategists.

If the PQ does win a majority, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may well find himself shopping for some equally adept strategists to counter them.

The late Robert Bourassa was fond of quoting the adage that "a week is a long time in politics." 

This last week of the 2012 Quebec election promises to be just that, a long time, and no one here is making confident predictions about the outcome of this strange three-way race.