23 janvier 1999
Last Sunday, my good friend Tommy Schnurmacher seemed to think that I don't write about the S-word nearly often enough. "You know something is askew," he wrote, "when Josee Legault opts for the White House over the Bunker."
All right Tommy, you win.
Indeed, something is askew. Over the last three years, the PQ's option all but vanished from the Bouchard government's discourse, policies and actions. It did nothing to promote its option, which enjoyed a near victory in the 1995 referendum. Instead, it devoted a great deal of energy to negotiating with Ottawa new language-based school boards, manpower training and now, the so-called Canadian social union.
It closed many of our foreign delegations and paid precious little attention to Quebec's relations with France. One result was that the recent visit of Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister, was more of a diplomatic success for Ottawa than it was for Quebec. The Bouchard government also focused obsessively on obtaining a zero deficit to the point of alienating many of the PQ's traditional allies and causing the progressive wing of its party to melt like snow on a spring day.
By exercising unprecedented authority over his ministers, MNAs and party members, the premier has managed to marginalize the PQ's most vocal and hard-working members. Any sovereignist opinion leader or PQ member who dares to speak out is labeled a hard-liner by both the government spin doctors and most media commentators.
Criticism of any of the premier's opinions or policies is said to weaken the unity of the movement. Bernard Landry went so far as to call Jacques Parizeau an "objective ally" of the federalists. All this is contrary to the PQ's official statutes, which proclaim that "the right to dissidence and criticism, inside the party, must be constantly respected."
Both on the night of the last election and on the day after, Lucien Bouchard acted in a defeatist manner and unilaterally decided that he did not have a mandate to prepare a referendum for quite a while. This prompted Pierre Bourgault to write in the Journal de Montreal on Dec. 5 that Bouchard "not only has the right, but the duty, to lead us to a winning referendum. Or else, he should have the guts to tell me that I voted for nothing." A sign of life was also felt from four Bloc MPs - Francine Lalonde, Pierre de Savoye, Daniel Turp and Pierre Brien - who recently suggested that we get back to promoting sovereignty and update some of its precepts. (See article on Page B5.)
With rare exceptions, which include this columnist, few people spoke up to demand that the government respect its duty to promote its option and its commitment to hold a referendum.
At PQ national council meetings, envoys from the Bunker (the premier's office), ministers, MNAs and the PQ brass do battle with party members to defeat any resolution that remotely disagrees with the premier. This creates an unhealthy climate. It breeds contempt for the members and distrust in the larger sovereignist movement. It deters dissent and debate.
On Thursday, Le Devoir reported that as the PQ is nearing its next national council on Jan. 30, the Bunker now wants to delay, yet again, the party convention to the spring of 2000. That would be almost four years after the last one, contrary to the PQ's statutes, which require a convention to be held every two years, unless a major event prevents it.
The PQ's biennial convention is its supreme authority. Members help define major party and government orientations. It is a serious and arduous operation that demands at least 300 days of preparation. Should it be pushed back once again, it would further confirm that the Bunker intends to continue to distance itself from the rank and file. It could also mean that its leader fears a new confidence vote, remembering how he received 76.7 per cent in November 1996.
Maybe we'll soon have to substitute the famous existential question "What does Quebec want?" for "What does Bouchard want?
The answer, thus far, doesn't look too reassuring for sovereignists.
So, dear Tommy, there's no need to fear that I'll write about the White House on a regular basis. Next Saturday's column will continue to analyze the state of the sovereignty movement and discuss whether there's any sign of a resurgence of debate in a movement that is way too quiet for its own good.
Something is askew in sovereignty circles
23 janvier 1999