The Macleans.ca Interview: André Pratte
La Presse's editorial page editor explains why a new inquiry report is trouble for Jean Charest - and why the inquiry never should have happened
Kate Lunau, Macleans.ca | May 28, 2007 | 21:57:16
Over a year ago, Les secrets d'Option Canada offered the explosive allegation that federal cash was funnelled to the No side during the 1995 Quebec referendum by non-profit group Option Canada. In their book, Normand Lester and Robin Philpot implicated some of the province's high-ranking politicians and business figures - from ex-Heritage Minister Liza Frulla to Daniel Johnson, who headed the Quebec Liberals during the referendum.
With the results of an inquest called after the book's publication set to be made public, Macleans.ca caught up with one of Quebec's most respected and authoritative voices. Long critical of the inquiry, André Pratte explains why it will nevertheless weaken Quebec's embattled premier.
Macleans.ca: What can we expect from Tuesday's report?
André Pratte: There are a lot of rumours, but it’s very difficult [to know in advance] because everyone who participated in the inquiry had to apparently take some kind of vow of secrecy. We have heard that some people got notices from the commissioner that they would be blamed in the report, but that’s all we know.
M: What was the reason for all the secrecy?
P: The retired judge [who headed the commission], Bernard Grenier, decided to work in this way. He did not explain it. This is not a public inquiry like the Gomery Commission. So he proceeded in his own way, established his own rules and one of those rules was this secrecy.
M; The Quebec Liberals are in a precarious situation now, with the two opposition parties threatening to vote against the new budget. What kind of impact might the report have on them?
P: It will weaken them, whatever is in the report, because the moment [Grenier] has found something - and obviously he has found something - it will be easy for the opposition parties to say that Jean Charest is responsible for either some of those things that happened in ’95 or for hiring some people who were involved in what happened in 1995. At this particular moment, when already Mr. Charest is in difficulty, it will only weaken his position.
M: It seems unlikely that Grenier’s report will directly touch Charest, who was head of the federal Progressive Conservative Party at the time of the 1995 referendum. But is his reputation on the line anyway?
P: The problem is it’s all a matter of perception. During the 1995 campaign, Mr. Charest did not play an important role. He made some good speeches, but at the time was heading a decimated Conservative party and he had no control or influence on the campaign strategy for the federalist side. The Liberals were in power in Ottawa and the Liberal Party of Quebec was also very much involved in the strategy of the federalist camp. But still, if the judge found that any irregularities happened, it will be easy for the opposition to say ‘Well, Charest was there, you remember - he made all those speeches.’
It’s like during the Gomery Commission, even if the commissioner said Paul Martin as Minister of Finance was not aware of what was going on it was very easy for the opposition parties to say, “He was Minister of Finance, right? He should have seen that something was amiss.’ So I have a feeling that even if Judge Grenier found the cat of some obscure political aide to Charest has been involved in something, it would be easy for the opposition parties to blame Mr. Charest and possibly have some impact on public opinion.
M: With the budget vote looming, would it be to the advantage of the opposition parties to push for a provincial election now?
P: I don’t think so, and I don’t think they think so. There was even a poll out this morning that obviously shows the Liberals are in difficulty, but it [also] shows that no other party is sure of winning. If the government is defeated on Friday and there is an election, it’s very hard to know who the population would blame for the election. It really depends on what happens this week. If Mr. Charest does show that he’s willing to compromise - as apparently he is now - it would be hard for the opposition, or at least for the Parti Québecois, to [complain], ‘We wanted $100-million for this thing and he only offered us $80 million.’ People will say, ‘Take the $80 million, forget about the election.’
M: Before this inquiry was launched in Jan. 2006, you wrote an editorial suggesting an inquiry into Option Canada would be “futile, costly, and harmful.” Now that the inquiry’s findings are about to be released, do you still feel that way?
P: The problem with the inquest is there are two main issues. First, I don’t think even today - and I may be mistaken - I don’t think we’ll really learn something new. We’ll learn the details of something that we all knew already, which is that there were some irregularities [and] that the federal government did circumvent parts of the Quebec laws on referendums. One reason for that is that the federal government doesn’t feel that it should abide by this law, that it’s a provincial law. But anyway, we knew that already. So we might have some details as to who got money from Option Canada and who did not, but that won’t change much.
Second is that we are having this very in-depth inquiry into one part of what happened in 1995, but not the other part - the ballots that were spoiled and so on. So we’re having just one side and I think that’s too bad. Because we know that whatever’s in the report, people who are convinced that the referendum was “stolen” from the Yes side will be even more convinced. And I myself, having lived through this 1995 campaign, I am absolutely certain that whatever the federalist side did, whatever money they had more than the other side, did not have an impact at all on the results.
M: What makes you certain?
P: There was no obvious financial advantage. You did not see five times as many billboards for the No side as the Yes side. You did not see huge television ads or campaigns that you didn’t have on the Yes side. I mean, the Yes side had the government of Quebec on its side – they had all these resources and they did spend a lot of money also. And this issue of spoiled ballots - you had something like 9,000 votes at least that were spoiled, that were No votes. That matters also. I personally feel that [Quebec’s Director General of Elections Marcel Blanchet, who ordered the inquiry] should have asked Judge Grenier to look at all the problems that happened in 1995. And besides, it’s very difficult for me to understand why the Director General decided to launch this inquiry, because in a way, it is outside his mandate. Whatever is in the report, he cannot act upon it. The deadline for any kind of judicial action is long passed. So he will only be able to say, ‘Well yes, this happened and there’s nothing I can do about it.’
M: Then why hold the inquiry at all?
P: I guess Mr. Blanchet could say it might help us, if there’s another referendum, in trying to prevent these kinds of things. But in my mind if you want to do that, you should have had an inquiry into the whole process of the 1995 referendum, on what happened on both sides, not only on one side based on one book written by hard-core separatists, who wrote this exactly to achieve that result.
M: How should we view the information that came out in this book, given who wrote it?
P: [Philpot and Lester] had access to some documents that seem to confirm there were some irregularities on the federalist side, and that is true. But that, I would say, is probably 10 percent of the book. The rest is innuendo and suppositions and imagined plots. They state it like everyone who worked on the federalist side was paid under the table and if that had not happened, Quebecers would have voted 80 per cent in favour of sovereignty - which is ridiculous. You see that in the polls again this morning. This poll that is quite favourable to the Parti Québécois shows that less than 40 per cent of Quebecers are in favour of separation. If Quebecers had this idea that they wanted independence and that someone had prevented them, the anger would be pretty deep, wouldn’t it? And it’s not there at all, because people know that what happened represents their views.
M: So the release of this report doesn't threaten to dredge up any emotions left over from the referendum?
P: I would be surprised. I think that the details will make the news for a couple of days and it will probably have an impact on Mr. Charest. He may have to fire some people in his staff, for instance. But besides that, I don’t think politically it will have much impact. If there is an election campaign, it will be one argument used against Mr. Charest. I don’t think it will have a lasting impact on the debate of sovereignty.