(The National Post,
January 25, 2001)
by Martin Masse
Charismatic leaders can persuade people to vote against their own best interest in support of risky utopian schemes. Lucien Bouchard was very good at that, says Martin Masse. Now it's time to examine what he achieved.
It seems that the days following a political leader's death or resignation
are never a good time for a rational evaluation of what he has accomplished
in office, especially if this politician is from Quebec and has played
a prominent role in the ongoing crisis over the country's future.
We saw it in the fall when Pierre Trudeau left us. Now, Lucien Bouchard's departure from the political stage has triggered a similar kind of reaction. Mr. Bouchard, we are told, had a vision, he was charming and cultivated, he was honest, courageous, dignified and determined. Above all, he had charisma.
There has barely been a word of criticism in the press in Quebec and elsewhere for what he has done over the past decade and especially during his five years at the head of the provincial government. Although he was vilified as a hothead and a demagogue in some federalist quarters not very long ago, he is now acclaimed as a pragmatic and prudent man who led a rather conservative administration and stood up to the radical fringe in his party.
In the National Post, Peter C. Newman bemoaned the fact that Mr. Bouchard's resignation "
In the kind of mystical flowery prose that nationalists (Canadian nationalist in his case) and other types of collectivists are fond of, Mr. Newman informs us that "
Isn't it funny that political giants worthy of this rank never seem to set out as national goals that the country should have a smaller government and its citizens more economic and personal freedom? The "
Let me offer a less charitable explanation: Collectivist parties and movements need charismatic leaders because their utopian plans would never get the approval of a majority if not set forth in a context of emotional manipulation. Charismatic leaders, because of their extraordinary ability to reach out into people's psyches, can create this "strong sense of necessity," this sense of vulnerability and urgency, which will prompt more people to vote against their best personal interest and support risky statist schemes supposedly for the good of the nation. Other words to describe the same phenomena are collective hysteria and demagoguery.
That's what Mr. Bouchard was momentarily very good at. His power was entirely based on his ability to communicate his feeling of indignation at what Ottawa was doing and translate the sense of crisis thus created into stronger support for the Bloc, the PQ and separation. It worked in the early 1990s following the Meech failure. It worked in the last weeks of the 1995 referendum campaign. But it stopped working in recent years.
If we look not at his talent as a charismatic leader but at his actual achievements as head of the provincial government, what does he leave behind? A lot in terms of bureaucratic reforms, interventionist measures, and centralization of power; but predictably little that reduced the burden of taxes and regulations for Quebeckers and increased their freedom of choice.
Mr. Bouchard, like all Quebec leaders of all parties before him for the past decades, does not believe that people should be left to act as they will within the limits of the law in a free market and a free society. He is, like most of his predecessors, an adherent of the corporatist conception of the state.
This doctrine stipulates that the holders of state power should sit down with "social partners" – the leaders of various pressure groups and self-proclaimed representatives of society – to define priorities and plan a course of action for the whole nation or for parts of it. In other words, this is the place where the clear national goals set out by political giants should reveal themselves to
This ideology, given prominence by a papal encyclical in the 1930s, served as the economic blue-print for Mussolini's and Salazar's fascist states. The current bunch of corporatists have conveniently forgotten this and would, of course, deny their politics have anything to do with fascism. They believe that managing society as an "organic" entity with the collaboration of so-called intermediary corps is a good compromise between the stifling dirigisme of socialism and what they believe is the destructiveness of "savage capitalism."
So, a few months after Mr. Bouchard took office as premier, we had the Summit of all summits, the Great Socio-Economic Summit of 1996 where something of a "consensus" – that's the whole point of the exercise, reaching decisions which will then be presented as those of the Single Body of the Nation – was found on the necessity of putting an end to budget deficits. Without, of course, dismantling the institutions of the welfare state for whose continued existence a consensus can also be found.
The provincial government did get rid of its deficit quickly after the Summit of 1996, mainly through increased transfers from Ottawa and increased fiscal revenues from Quebec taxpayers, not by putting its finances in order. Mr. Bouchard has often been lauded as a rather conservative kind of politician, who would not squander money like some of his predecessors. That's another myth. The Quebec government has never been so big and so involved in all areas of the economy. Not a business project is announced in Quebec without some minister or government official present to remind everybody of the government's help. Mr. Bouchard gave free rein to his Minister of Finance – and likely successor – Bernard Landry, who has never seen a request for subsidies he didn't like.
Quebec has its giant Caisse de dépôt, its Innovatech, its union-run but fiscally favoured Fonds de solidarité. The Société générale de financement, another one of the big "financial arms" of the government, was given more power, more responsibilities and more money to invest, all with Mr. Bouchard's approval. Its latest fiasco is a project by the Taiwanese company, Mosel Vitelic, to build a semiconductor plant in Montreal, in which Quebec was willing to invest $2-billion. The project seems to have mercifully been put on ice for now because of Ottawa's reluctance to pour money into it and because of uncertainty over the company's ability to deliver. That's the kind of "fiscal prudence" that Quebeckers benefitted from during Mr. Bouchard's premiership.
During the past five years, just like during the previous 35, more reforms of the ailing health care and education sectors were discussed, debated in commissions, and implemented. None advanced the type of market solutions that would bring real change.
Mr. Bouchard also put all his political weight behind his municipal affairs minister's plan to merge municipalities in the major urban centres of the province. Quebec nationalists are very proud of their distinct way of doing things, but they have no qualms about copying solutions from other provinces that suit their centralizing instincts. As happened in Ontario, the government ignored overwhelming opposition from suburban areas and rammed through a bill that will soon abolish 28 communities in the Montreal area alone. This is ostensibly done to "rationalize administration" – i.e., impose uniform regulations and prevent competition and freedom of choice at the local level – and "foster regional equity" – i.e., allow politicians to increase taxes in richer areas to buy votes in poorer ones.
All this, writes Peter C. Newman, is presumably the type of leadership that Canadians want, the type displayed by the likes of Trudeau, Bennett, Davis, Lougheed and Smallwood, not the bland sort offered by the current minor politicians in Ottawa and the other provinces. "They're demanding a different style of politics based not on public opinion polls but on their collective desire for a higher quality of life."
I wish I had direct access to our national collective thoughts, as Mr. Newman seems to. In any case, if that's what we get by having political giants as leaders, there is surely a case to be made for political pygmies.
Martin Masse is director of the libertarian webzine, Le Québécois Libre. www.quebecoislibre.org