Why the Liberals collapsed in Quebec

Élections 2006


Liberals (and others) will go to their graves arguing about the wisdom of creating the Gomery inquiry.
The Martinite and Chrétien wings of the party disagreed from the beginning about how to handle Auditor-General Sheila Fraser's report into the sponsorship program.
The Chrétienites wanted the whole affair played down. They argued that it wasn't all that important, that the money that had gone astray was small, that the cause of fighting for national unity had been overwhelmingly important, that the police, not a public inquiry, should investigate wrongdoing.
The Martinites sought immediate distancing of themselves from the Chrétien era. They displayed the curious mentality -- an outgrowth of the long guerrilla war inside the party -- of acting like an opposition party against the Liberal incumbents they were replacing.
The Martinites reckoned -- this was the most fateful decision of their time in office -- that the sponsorship program's problems were so serious that only the fullest possible exploration and exploitation of them would clear the Liberal Party's name. And so Paul Martin embarked on his "mad as hell" tour across Canada, fired people from the Chrétien era, put in place vast new accountability mechanisms (the government is hiring 300 new internal auditors!) and, of course, established the Gomery inquiry.
Who knows what would have happened if the Chrétienite strategy had been adopted? What can be said is that the Chrétien approach could hardly have produced worse effects for the Liberals than the one the Martinites selected.
The Gomery inquiry and what preceded it ruined the Liberals' reputation in Quebec, and tarnished the party's standing in the rest of Canada. Today, the most significant change in Canadian politics has been the Liberals' collapse in Quebec, a collapse due in large measure to Gomery.
When Mr. Martin became Prime Minister, those around him believed he would be much more popular in Quebec than tired, old Jean Chrétien. Mr. Martin was open and flexible toward Quebec; Mr. Chrétien, they said, was not. Mr. Martin had favoured the Meech Lake constitutional accord and opposed, in cabinet, the Clarity Act; Mr. Chrétien had opposed Meech and driven the Clarity Act.
The Liberals, the Martinites presumed, would soar in Quebec with their man in charge. For a while, those assumptions seemed justified. The Bloc Québécois appeared in irreversible decline. Their provincial cousins, the Parti Québécois, had lost power; the Bloc had lost by-elections. Bloc MPs were defecting, and some were talking about calling it quits. The prospect of facing the Liberal juggernaut led by a triumphal Mr. Martin was too painful for some to bear.
The Gomery inquiry derailed the juggernaut. So did other factors. Mr. Martin began to strike Quebeckers as irresolute. The media picked on his French. He drummed out of the party impressive people such as former justice minister Martin Cauchon, a Chrétienite, and replaced him with hot-line host Jean Lapierre.
Curiously and discouragingly from the Martinites' perspective, their desire to get along with the Quebec Liberals brought no gains and much pain. The Charest government pocketed each concession or federal-provincial deal without giving the Martinites' credit, and demanded more.
The worse the Charest government's own problems, the pricklier the relations with Ottawa, as the provincial Liberals tried to burnish their nationalist credentials.
Now, in one of those delicious twists of political fate, the bend-over-backward Martinites are being pilloried for being hard-line in Quebec because the Conservatives are promising even more concessions.
Mr. Martin must be asking himself some unpleasant questions after reading a weekend poll that showed Stephen Harper, an Albertan with shaky French, more popular in Quebec. Early in the campaign, a leaked Liberal memo suggested that the party had already conceded 50 of the province's 75 seats.
Since then, things have become steadily worse -- and most of the party's Quebec cabinet ministers probably will be defeated. Tonight's French-language debate is not likely to improve the Liberal's fortunes, so deep runs the party's malaise in Quebec.
The Martinites have often displayed a tin ear for Quebec. The Liberals launched this campaign in Quebec insisting that it was a quasi-referendum on secession, which is not what most Quebeckers thought or wanted. With two weeks left, the Liberals are reeling in the province.
Once the Gomery inquiry was set loose on Quebec as a daily soap opera with a fascinating cast of rogues, the Liberals had no effective reply to the charge that they, as a party and a government, were corrupt to the core.


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