Ottawa's Referendum Strategy

On a day when Premier Jacques Parizeau and more than 1,000 of his closest sovereigntist friends were meeting for an occasion they deemed "historic," the man most of them consider Quebec's constitutional devil incarnate was less than 25 km away, doing his best to ignore them.

Ottawa's Referendum Strategy

On a day when Premier Jacques Parizeau and more than 1,000 of his closest sovereigntist friends were meeting for an occasion they deemed "historic," the man most of them consider Quebec's constitutional devil incarnate was less than 25 km away, doing his best to ignore them. As members of the Yes side unveiled their proposed preamble in Quebec City last week for the constitution of an independent Quebec, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was at the nearby Valcartier military base, greeting 400 returning members of the Canadian Forces who had been on UN peacekeeping duty in the former Yugoslavia. In his public remarks, he ignored the meeting. The next day, when Parizeau and Co. gathered for another self-described "historic" occasion - the unveiling of the referendum question itself - Chrétien, said an aide, did not even watch on television.

And so Quebec's referendum campaign began with an attempted bang on the Yes side, and nary a whimper in public from the most prominent member of the federalist forces. Instead, Labor Minister Lucienne Robillard, the federal government's designated pointperson for the referendum, was the first to respond after Parizeau tabled the text of the question. Predictably, she was critical, calling it "long and ambiguous" and difficult to understand.

The relatively low-key response was a likely portent of the no-fuss, no-muss campaign that the No forces intend to run - as long as polls continue to show them in the lead. During the campaign, Chrétien will spend little time in Quebec, and make only a few speeches that will contain even fewer promises when it comes to the ever-thorny topic of constitutional reform. "We already have a constitutional proposal," says an adviser to the Prime Minister in a familiar refrain. "It's called the nation of Canada."

That is one of a series of comforting phrases that the Prime Minister and other members of his government will chant like mantras throughout the campaign. Others include variations on the theme that "the burden of proof is on the Yes side," and an assertion that "regardless of what the question says, the real issue is whether Quebecers want to leave Canada." Those phrases were echoed by other federal politicians immediately after the question was unveiled. Reform's Stephen Harper, one of the party's spokesmen on Quebec and constitutional questions, said the referendum will be about "separation, not association." And Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest, expected to play a key role in the campaign, said the question amounts to asking "for a blank cheque."

Those messages, already frequently heard, will resonate even more often during a tightly scripted campaign that will allow federalist spokesmen little room for improvisation. Instead, like a hockey team with a two-goal lead in the third period, they are playing cautiously and defensively, concentrating on avoiding mistakes.

That caution results from a mix of fear and optimism. Based on public and private polls and their own analysis, some No organizers believe they could win the vote with a margin even greater than the 60-per-cent to 40-per-cent result of Quebec's 1980 referendum. But, they acknowledge, a major gaffe by the No side, or strong evidence of anti-Quebec feeling in the rest of the country, could erase that edge almost overnight. Already, Chrétien and his advisers have suggested informally several times to English-speaking premiers that they either stay silent on the Quebec issue, or consult with Ottawa before making statements. Similarly, the only members of Chrétien's cabinet likely to participate will be those who are from Quebec - with the possible exception of Transport Minister Doug Young and Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, both of whom are fluently bilingual.

As well, Chrétien is wary of appearing to devote too much time to Quebec at the expense of other national issues. Partly as a result, during the course of the campaign, he will also make a number of speeches outside Quebec.

That is one of a series of steps that will make the Quebec referendum campaign different from its predecessor in 1980. Then, the rest of the country appeared genuinely alarmed by the prospect of Quebec sovereignty; this time, a Chrétien adviser says carefully, the mood is "much more feisty." And 15 years ago, the federal cabinet boasted a number of political superstars from the province, including prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Marc Lalonde, Francis Fox and Chrétien himself. Now, Chrétien's own popularity in Quebec is sharply diminished, and the role of the federal cabinet has been lessened to the point where only one minister, Robillard - a relative unknown outside Quebec - is directly involved in strategy meetings between the federal and provincial Liberals.

Another difference is that federal officials insist that no extra money will be lavished on Quebec during the campaign as a means of enticing votes to the federalist side. "The mood today," says a Chrétien adviser, "is that there are more gains to be made by cutting spending than by spending more." Still, that intention may be honored more in the breach: already, the federal government has launched a noisy, $5-million television ad campaign extolling the country's virtues, and Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy's office moved with unaccustomed alacrity last week in unexpectedly announcing financial support for low-income Quebec wage earners.

Federal officials say they want the No side to appeal to voters through a judicious mix of hope and caution - selling the merits of Canada while questioning the uncertainties of an independent Quebec. Although the federal Liberals insist that they have not polled extensively, they acknowledge that they have made heavy use of focus groups to test the effectiveness of various ads on Quebecers. One of the findings, a federal official said, is that "Quebecers respond surprisingly well to ads emphasizing the upbeat aspects of Canada." That is one of the reasons behind the heavy-handed TV ad campaign, which evokes memories of a similar one that began running on the eve of the 1980 referendum. The present campaign extols everything from Canada's anti-smuggling customs efforts to the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue service and Ottawa's role in ensuring the safety of prescription drugs.

The other key element of the federalist strategy lies in the No side's success in raising questions about the economic uncertainties confronting a sovereign Quebec, while trying to avoid charges of fear-mongering. "Addressing those doubts is an essential part of the debate," said a Chrétien adviser, "but also one of the most likely to backfire." Last month, Finance Minister Paul Martin, perhaps the party's most credible figure in Quebec, spent six days touring the province; as Martin puts it, he was "test-driving speeches" that raised a series of economic questions. They include the obstacles that an independent Quebec would face in using the Canadian dollar and the potential problems it would encounter in trying to join the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Despite their low-key public approach, organizers of the No forces have been planning for the referendum since June, with meetings between key federal and provincial Liberal representatives held every Monday in Ottawa and Friday in Montreal. Along with Robillard, more than a dozen people from the two levels take part. Other key federal figures include Chrétien's chief of staff, former Quebec City mayor Jean Pelletier, and Ronald Bilodeau, the deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs.

By accident or design, many of Chrétien's other closest constitutional advisers are anglophones with roots in Montreal, including his special adviser, Eddie Goldenberg; Howard Balloch, who runs the federal Unity Office; prominent Montreal lawyer Eric Maldoff; and John Rae, a senior vice-president of Power Corp. and a long-time Chrétien adviser. In addition to those regular meetings, Chrétien's staff also speak on a near-daily basis with two close advisers to provincial Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, John Parisella and Pierre Anctil. Both men are intimates of Johnson, and Parisella worked as chief of staff for both Johnson and former premier Robert Bourassa.

Bourassa himself will also play a role in the campaign, despite some nervousness on the part of federal officials. Next week, he is to give a speech in Washington denouncing sovereignty, and also plans to make several speeches in Quebec. Although Bourassa may help to sway some moderate nationalists to the No side, federal officials fear he may also renew pressure to reopen constitutional talks. Other former federal and provincial leaders will be less busy. Former Parti Québécois premier Pierre Marc Johnson startled some Yes supporters recently when he said he will not publicly declare how he plans to vote. Johnson has told friends that he is convinced the No side will win, and that he feels he can play a role in the aftermath. Similarly, Trudeau has said, through his friend Lalonde, that he does not plan to make any public comments. His reasoning, he told another friend recently, is that Chrétien "is doing things properly," and he is convinced that the No side will win.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the level of confidence on the No side, those plans could unravel quickly if the Yes side moves ahead in early polls. For one thing, that would lead some provincial Liberals to push their federal counterparts for a commitment to constitutional reform. That, in turn, might lead Trudeau to end his silence and enter the debate to defend the status quo - a move that might have mixed results. And Chrétien would face pressure to play a more active personal role in the campaign - which might also have mixed results given his shaky popularity in his home province. "There are," said a Chrétien adviser, "only about a million remaining things that might go wrong." For the would-be champions of Canada, the real game is just beginning.

Maclean's September 18, 1995