October 20, 2004 Wednesday
There was an air of surrealism at the weekend Parti Quebecois national council meeting. Even veteran party members needed a map to keep up with the players.
While a group of his personal organizers were handing out a 30-page booklet outlining his own "vision" of the PQ, Francois Legault went on denying he wants a leadership race.
Pauline Marois, on the other hand, continued to call for a leadership race, though it's painfully obvious she has precious few organizers of her own.
Leader Bernard Landry, though he denies his leadership is in jeopardy or that contenders even exist, underwent a stunning metamorphosis. He might deny that, too, but most PQ members in the hall knew he did it to boost his chances of winning the confidence vote he'll face at his party's convention next June.
The man who, until just a few weeks ago, refused to commit his party to hold a referendum unless he had the "moral certainty" of winning it, now appears to say the opposite. Taking what sounded like a Parizeau-style, hard-line turn, Landry now says winning a referendum is an absolute certainty and that his party would, therefore, hold one if the PQ is elected.
He also ditched the confederal, European-style union with Canada he's defended for decades. Even though he refused to spend public funds to promote sovereignty when he was premier - calling it "propaganda" - he now promises to do it.
The change is so sudden and so stunning it asks the inevitable question: How many Quebecers will find it credible that a 67-year-old man who defended a more hesitant approach to sovereignty for the past 30 years, wakes up one morning and turns into a clone of Jacques Parizeau?
For one thing, Landry took this turn to survive the confidence vote of his members for one reason only: A growing number of Pequistes support the Parizeau-style approach of Robert Lapante, director of L'Action nationale.
Laplante wants a PQ government to ask for a clear mandate to trigger the process to achieve sovereignty and hold a quick referendum to ratify a new constitution. If a majority votes yes, sovereignty would be immediately declared.
His new stance might sound similar to Laplante's, but there are at least two major differences: one that comes from the party's establishment and one from Landry himself.
Whereas Parizeau and Laplante say a referendum should be held within the first year of a PQ mandate, making Quebec automatically independent with a majority Yes, the proposal made this weekend by the PQ's program committee suggests a referendum be held within 21/2 years "within the first half of the mandate."
As for Landry, though his new stance was reported as "radicalized," the fact is he remains steadfastly opposed to any precise time-frame that he couldn't wiggle out of. In his weekend speech and again yesterday in a scrum, Landry insisted his position is to have a referendum "as soon as possible." Period.
Yesterday, he added he was working on this issue with Marois, someone who happens to be just as opposed as Landry to committing to a defined deadline for a referendum. So what's the difference between "winning conditions," "the moral certainty to win" or "as soon as possible?" Not much. Each is a vague, highly subjective call that only can be made by the leader, not party members within the party's program.
A PQ leader might say he'll hold a referendum, and even include it in the party's program, but that's worth nothing, as Parizeau knew in 1995, if there is no clear time-frame. Without a quick referendum, Ottawa would have time to spend oodles of money on national unity, whereas PQ ministers would get bogged down in governing.
Without a deadline, who knows? The subjective "as soon as possible" might never materialize in Landry's eyes, just as Lucien Bouchard never did want to see any winning conditions.
That might explain why this weekend, Landry rose to give a long ovation to former Bouchard adviser Jean-Francois Lisee after he advised PQ members not to commit to any precise referendum timing. Landry and Lisee are on the same wavelength.
That's why Landry keeps inviting him to talk at party functions and considers him one of his informal advisers.
The PQ leader has not Parizeau-ized his position. But he's sure trying to make it look that way. His real position remains what it was: No clear deadline for a referendum or for any declaration of sovereignty even if there's a majority vote.
As one former premier once told me: "Best to beware of dramatic and sudden metamorphosis, especially in politicians." Such changes rarely last.
Landry hasn't really changed mind
October 20, 2004 Wednesday