Bernie’s back, and for those among us who are trying to make sense of this weird Quebec election campaign, that’s good news.
We’re talking about veteran journalist and broadcaster Bernard St-Laurent, who retired in 2015 but returned to CBC radio last year with a weekly political column. During the election he is being featured Mondays and Thursdays, at 7:40am on CBC Radio’s excellent morning show Daybreak, hosted by Mike Finnerty.
With his easy laugh and affable personality, everybody, including major political leaders, calls him Bernie. Having covered the political scene since the 1970s for a variety of media — mainly CJAD, the Montreal Daily News, and CBC radio and television — St-Laurent in his reportage and commentary has earned respect across political lines for his fairness, insight, and vast institutional memory.
The proud father of three and grandfather of five is married to now retired CBC executive Patricia Pleszczynska. His work has won him awards from the broadcasting industry, Commissioner of Official Languages, and even the National Assembly, testaments to his journalistic excellence and easy-going people skills.
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His great uncle was Louis St-Laurent, the Liberal prime minister from 1948 to 1957, who used to visit the family’s general store in Compton, where Bernard and Patricia spend part of their time. As the campaign was entering its second week, we sat down to get his take on it.
For the first time in some 50 years, the sovereignty/referendum issue is absent from the campaign, he said.
“That is one main reason why the CAQ (François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec) has been able to get support because francophones who would normally vote Liberal feel it’s OK to vote for them, and the same is true for Péquistes who are tired of their talk.”
Propelling the CAQ support, which is comfortably ahead in early polls, is a desire for change — “a perception that the Liberals have been in power for most of the past 15 years, and the lingering effects of the austerity measures of a few years ago.”
Voters remember the pain, but are not giving the Liberals credit for the strong state of Quebec finances, St-Laurent noted.
“The economy is performing extremely well, unemployment is low, the budget is balanced … all positive for the Liberals.”
“As long as the ballot-box question is: Do you Want Change, I think the CAQ is going to win. If the Liberals can change the ballot-box question to something like, Do We Want Stability at a time when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) might be going out the window, and other changes coming, it might be an opportunity for them to get back in the game. Otherwise, it is going to be very, very hard for them.”
The Liberals can benefit from what Robert Bourassa called the “ballot-box bonus” — two to three points in the polls that account for respondents’ unwillingness to self-identify as Liberal, even if that is how they will vote, but it may not be enough to counter the desire for change, he continued.
Can strong candidates make a difference?
“A really super candidate can maybe make a three or four percent difference in a riding, but apart from exceptional cases, who the candidate is does not have that much impact.”
When it comes to positives, the Liberals can count on a solid voting base and argue that the pain of belt tightening was necessary because “we were borrowing to pay the groceries.”
“They can talk about improvements to health-care services — it is better than it was four years ago,” St-Laurent said.
“The problem is that people think they cut too much, too soon, that they could have been a little more humane about it.”
When it comes to the CAQ, and its positives, Legault gets credit for building a credible team.
But there are issues with some of their top people: party president Stéphane Le Bouyonnec, a former CAQ MNA, resigned and withdrew as a candidate, after it was revealed he was on the board of an online loan service that charged astronomical interest rates that would be illegal in Quebec. And CAQ MNA Éric Caire was blasted by the National Assembly Ethics Commissioner for accepting a $55,000 loan from a suburban Quebec City mayor in his riding of La Peltrie, which put him in “in a situation of potential conflict of interest.”
Still, St-Laurent says, the CAQ now is more than Legault’s party and has moved more toward the centre in its rhetoric to broaden potential support.
However, his immigration policy could alienate some. Legault’s call for cutting by 10,000 the current annual target of 50,000 immigrants “is a weakness, because even the mayors in the regions are saying they need more immigrants.”
Playing the identity card does not work with young Quebecers, and “that is why the Liberals are ahead of the CAQ in the 18-35 year-old demographic.”
One veteran campaign worker once told St-Laurent: “When it’s going well, it’s easy to get out the vote; when it’s not going well, it’s not easy.” One glimmer of hope for the Liberals is if the PQ, floundering in third place, picks up three or four points in the polls, this could cut into CAQ support and help Liberal chances in ridings where there is a close race.
With the most recent poll indicating that non-francophones are returning to their traditional support for the Liberals, this could make a difference in such Eastern Townships ridings as Brome-Missisquoi, Saint François, and Richmond.
Whatever the outcome, Bernard and Patricia are planning to open an art gallery in Compton in the Eastern Townships.