Quebec Predicament

June 12, 1994

Voters in a democracy often want change in government but rarely want cataclysmic change in the nation. This creates the tendency to have two more-or-less centrist parties, with policy differences but not insuperable gulfs.

In the Province of Quebec, that has not been possible since the Parti Quebecois became the official opposition in the 1970s. The Liberals in office too long became complacent, corrupt, incompetent, boring, insensitive -- as ruling parties do. But the only credible opposition is dedicated to dismantling Canada. How does a voter kick the rascals out without bringing on the revolution?

Quebecers settled this by bringing the Parti Quebecois to power and then voting a resounding "No" on the referendum for sovereignty -- and then bringing the chastened Liberals back. The 1980 referendum rejecting independence for Quebec should have settled the matter for a generation. It did not, unless a generation is now 15 years.

It is time once again to kick the Liberals out. Polls last year suggested this was inevitable. But what the voters want is fresh faces with untarnished records. What they would get from the Parti Quebecois is commitment to Quebec sovereignty through a speedy referendum.

That explains why the latest poll by Canada's Angus Reid Group shows a drastic narrowing of the party vote, to 48 percent for PQ against 46 percent for the Liberals. The result of the election expected in August or September is no longer a foregone conclusion. The same poll says that Quebecers would reject separation by 54 percent to 38 percent. (This is highly conjectural, since the terms of any referendum are not yet written.)

What the poll really shows is that Quebec Province desperately needs a party of loyal opposition, so the voters can kick the provincial rascals out without destroying Canada. You would think some ambitious politician would have thought of this by now. Quebec craves a vibrant provincial Conservative Party.

Although Quebec contributed leaders to the federal Conservative Party, it doesn't offer voters that alternative in provincial elections. Time was when French-speaking Quebecers had little use for English-speaking conservatism, but they have come a long way in business and the professions and this proposition needs to be re-examined.

Meanwhile, the election can't wait. Voters are going to have to choose between a sovereignty referendum they don't want and keeping the rascals in. It's a case of party politics failing to provide the options that voters should have available.

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