The Duceppe road show


January 14, 2005 Friday
The Canadian tour is a rite of passage for sovereignist leaders, but Gilles Duceppe has additional reasons for raising his profile
Gilles Duceppe is a hard worker. There hasn't been a sighting of Bernard Landry yet, but the Bloc Quebecois leader has already wrapped up a five-day tour of Western Canada.
Duceppe likes to travel while he works. This week, he spoke in Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. Last fall, he spoke in Toronto and will be touring Atlantic provinces and Europe in the next few months.
His message to "his friends from Canada" is constant: Sovereignty will come with a partnership and, in the meantime, such "common battles" as fiscal imbalance can be waged together against Ottawa.
Manitobans must have been tinkled pink to hear this sovereignist leader volunteer advice on how to improve Canada by joining Quebec in its fight for federal funds: "I would urge Manitobans and Premier Gary Doer to do the same." Go figure.
The reception he was given was always "polite." No surprise there. Western Canadians are no less polite than Ontarians when facing a sovereignist leader at a time when no referendum is in sight and the Parti Quebecois happens to be in disarray.
Duceppe likes to take care of his image while he travels. Still riding the wave of his electoral success, his travels serve to heighten his visibility and credibility with his voters in Quebec.
Duceppe is seen as a possible successor to Landry. His new star quality is partly due to the fallout from the sponsorship scandal. But it's also the result of what those who know him well call his amazing discipline and taste for hard work.
Whether or not he goes to the PQ, Duceppe's visibility will help to solidify his position, be it in Ottawa or Quebec City.
Duceppe likes to make sure his image is distinct from that of the PQ's older guard. He has a political persona that rests on a greater openness to cultural communities, to the rest of Canada and to the world at large.
This appearance of "openness" is a ritual each new sovereignist leader goes through once. People forget that the previous one did the same thing. It's a kind of test of "modernity" exclusively imposed on them. Just ask Landry, Jacques Parizeau, Rene Levesque or Lucien Bouchard.
Speaking of leaders, the one question about Duceppe is: Will he or won't he jump to the PQ when Landry departs? Until recently, Duceppe remained very interested. Rumour was he had struck a deal with Landry: He'd support the PQ leader until he leaves. Then, and only then, he'd voice his interest to succeed him.
For a number of reasons, Duceppe seems to have changed his mind. First, his leaving Ottawa would trigger two leadership campaigns at once - one at the Bloc and one at the PQ. That would leave the Bloc vulnerable to a possible election call by Paul Martin.
Second, Duceppe knows that leading the PQ requires the kind of political culture the Bloc simply doesn't have. Even the charismatic Bouchard found out the PQ is more difficult to control, more prone to intense, divisive debates given its raison d'etre to form a government to attain sovereignty. That's a tall order the Bloc doesn't have to worry about.
Third, life is pretty good at the Bloc. If Duceppe stays, chances are his party will do well again in the next election. It has 54 MPs, each with a base salary of $140,000, 350 paid employees and nearly $3 million thanks to new federal rules on party financing. The irony is that of the two sister parties, the Bloc is the well-off, united and stable one.
Which brings up the final, ultimate reason why Duceppe might stay put: Any future PQ leader would have major reconstruction work to do. Being in the red and having what inside sources say could be as few as 35,000 paying members, whoever succeeds Landry will face a gargantuan political and organizational challenge, just as Parizeau did when he took over in 1988.
Even Parizeau took six years to rebuild a party that was in as poor a state as it is now.
But the situation at the PQ is also volatile. Will the unpopular Landry resign before his confidence vote next June? If he stays, will he survive the vote? Even if he does, will he be putsched out before the next election? Will the PQ's new vice-president - also to be elected in June - support or fight him?
The only certainty is that there's no natural successor out there. Be it Francois Legault, Pauline Marois, Joseph Facal, Andre Boisclair, Paul Begin, Duceppe, some younger, ambitious Bloc MPs actively preparing their own candidacy, or even a surprise contender, it's still anybody's game to win.
So, with good reason, Duceppe might say no now. But when the real moment to decide comes, who knows?

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