The message seemed as clear as a sign on the door: in this fight, at least, anglophones need not apply. Certainly that was one of the first thoughts that occurred to Montreal Liberal MP David Berger in early December when he reluctantly agreed to give up the Saint-Henri/Westmount seat he had held since 1988 to make way for the Liberals' latest new political star, former Quebec cabinet minister Lucienne Robillard. As part of Ottawa's referendum strategy in Quebec, Berger was an obvious sacrificial lamb: even as an aloof backbencher with a low political profile in his own province, the bilingual veteran had kept the constituency a party stronghold - safe enough for fielding a new player in one of three Feb. 13 byelections the government called last week. Still, the blatancy of the decision bothered some. "I agree that I don't have the highest profile," said Berger. "But I'm concerned that the wrong thing will be read into an anglophone MP giving way to a francophone."
Stacking the Liberal deck is only one of the gambles the federal government is obviously determined to take. By setting a February date for two byelections in the Quebec ridings of Saint- Henri/Westmount and Brome/Missisquoi and a third in Ottawa/Vanier, Ottawa is offering the federalist forces a platform during the simultaneous launch in Quebec of public consultations on sovereignty. Patronage appointments - Berger to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's political staff and Ottawa/Vanier MP Jean-Robert Gauthier to the Senate last November - have also created two questionable byelections at a cost to taxpayers of as much as $750,000 each. "This whole thing will backfire on the government," said Reform MP Edward Harper.
In all three byelections, the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and the once powerful Conservatives are preparing to wage all-out battles. And, if only to ensure a platform, the Reform party plans to run its first Quebec candidate in Brome/Missisquoi, vacant since the accidental death last September of rookie Bloc MP Gaston Péloquin. The centre of the Liberal strategy is the 49-year-old Robillard, who held cultural, health and education portfolios in the Liberal governments of Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson. Narrowly defeated in the Sept. 12 Quebec election, Robillard is expected by Liberals to accomplish what has so far eluded Chrétien's weak Quebec federal caucus. Said one senior Liberal: "With one or two exceptions, the Liberals are still miserable flops in Quebec. She gives us credibility." That is something the Liberals sorely need in Chrétien's home province.
Maclean's January 9, 1995