Friday, July 18, 2003
When the National Assembly reconvened on Wednesday to adopt the government's spending estimates, the whole process ended with a whimper, not a bang.
Instead of going for the Liberal government's jugular by detailing with precision the unending list of promised budget cuts and possible ensuing social consequences, Parti Québécois leader Bernard Landry chose to attack Jean Charest for being what he is - a staunch federalist.
Landry opened question period by criticizing Charest for creating the Council of the Federation, which the Liberals had been proposing since October 2001. Quebec, according to Landry, had surrendered and ''fallen into line with the other provinces.'' But in fact, it was Landry who had laid the groundwork for this new common front of provinces when he was premier by actively pursuing an interprovincial alliance against the fiscal imbalance created by Ottawa.
Still, for Landry, this new council has brought Quebec to an unprecedented historical low - ''un avachissement historique'' - in order for Charest to win some ''cheap popularity contest'' with the other premiers.
Charest defended his government for the leadership role Quebec would now allegedly play as a full-fledged partner within the federation. He then portrayed the PQ's option as a ''failure and a dead-end.'' Now, you would think the PQ leader would have jumped at the opportunity to defend sovereignty against Charest's attempt at ridiculing his option. Think again.
Not a word was said in defence of sovereignty. Instead, the PQ leader dove into the usual federal-provincial rhetoric by bringing up fiscal imbalance. ''When will we see the colour of the money?'' he asked. So Charest paints sovereignty as a dead-end and Landry yells back ''show me the money.''
At the end of the day, the opposition leader failed to defend his option as well as explain why he believes Charest's council will further weaken Quebec within Canada. He also made little use of the 16-page document his own staff prepared underscoring the shortcomings of the Liberal government's first 100 days.
The document, 100 Days of Setbacks, lists in detail 100 examples of how the PQ believes the Charest government plans to ''deconstruct'' the way Quebecers have governed themselves since the Quiet Revolution. Stating ''the post-April 14 Quebec is constrained and paralyzed,'' it denounces the Liberal plan to introduce across-the-board spending cuts so it can afford the billion-dollar-a-year tax reduction it promised during the election campaign.
And the list is quite unsettling. The Liberals plan to ask Quebecers to pay more for day-care services, drug insurance, electricity and maybe even for water. Then there's the confusion over the government's no-fault automobile-insurance program, possible restrictions on access to legal aid, the imposition of workfare on a number of welfare recipients and the axing of the Quebec Observatory on Globalization.
The document also points to two major predicaments looming on the horizon: municipal demergers and the inevitable confrontation with public sector unions should the Liberals further deregulate working conditions as they have promised. Even with all this ammunition, Landry didn't capitalize on this impressive list and didn't hold a press conference, either, to go further into detail.
Obviously, PQ staff can do the research work well enough and can prepare strong arguments against the Liberals' approach. But some in the party are now coming to the belated realization that maybe, just maybe, the PQ opposition has neither the leadership nor the will to communicate its arguments clearly to Quebecers and, more importantly, to put forward its sovereignty option, not the solving of the fiscal imbalance, as the real alternative to the Liberal budget-cutting agenda.
Last year, when the PQ was plummeting in the polls, then-premier Landry grudgingly admitted his government had a serious problem with communications. Some in the party are starting to whisper the communications problem could lie in the leadership itself.
One issue is credibility. Landry's close association with the Bouchard government's own budget cuts hurts whatever credibility the PQ opposition has in attacking the Liberal agenda.
Another problem is the lack of will and clarity when it comes to the promotion of sovereignty. Not only is the leader still bent on a confederal union with Canada, he also seems unwilling to defend sovereignty as the only alternative to Charest's vision, choosing instead to battle beside him on the issue of fiscal imbalance.
Should the PQ remain stuck with these two problems, not only will most question periods continue to end with a whimper, but so could the PQ's option. The party needs to get back to its raison d'être with passion and a credible leader to voice it with his heart as well as his mind.
Landry lacks the heart to push for sovereignty
Friday, July 18, 2003