Former premier sure knows how to get a lot of attention

Five years out of public life, but he's still the best political actor of his generation

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The Gazette, Monday, October 23, 2006

The least that can be said about Lucien Bouchard's comments that Quebecers don't work hard enough is that he can still make headlines and start a debate.

What he said, in a brief television interview last week, was that Quebecers don't work as many hours as Ontarians and Americans. Next thing you knew it had been torqued up into tabloid headlines that Quebecers were lazy. It was right up there on the humiliation index.

Talk radio went ballistic. Radio-Canada brought in a professor to crunch the numbers. A spirited debate ensued about work versus quality of life, and here in festival city, we know how that one comes out.

In Quebec City for the unveiling of Robert Bourassa's statue at the legislature, Jacques Parizeau weighed in with the comment that, "once again, we Quebecers disappoint Mr. Bouchard."

To which Bouchard, at a news conference, testily retorted: "Mr. Parizeau himself greatly disappointed me a certain evening in October 1995."

He quickly added that if that was the only thing the media were interested in, it was going to be a very short news conference.

This was at McGill University the other day, after Bouchard gave the closing keynote at a conference on the first anniversary of the manifesto, Pour un Quebec Lucide, which sounded an alarm on Quebec's debt, its statist economy and its lacklustre economic growth.

This is the very "Quebec model" that Bouchard once vigorously defended in the 1998 campaign, when he successfully morphed Jean Charest into Mike Harris. Seven and eight years on, he has essentially called for the whole thing to be dismantled.

This wouldn't be the first time Bouchard changed his mind about something important, always with the same passion and conviction that has set him apart from other public figures of his time.

Bouchard enjoys a special state of grace with Quebecers. Besides, the best justification for changing your mind is to say that you changed it. That was then, this is now.

And so at McGill's majestic Redpath Hall, with portraits of all the chancellors staring down at him from the walls, Bouchard spoke for half an hour, mostly in French, but also in English. The audience was rapt, and rewarded him with a strong standing ovation.

He said that, 40 years after the Quiet Revolution, it was time for a new projet de societe for Quebec. He didn't really have one to propose, he just thought it was time for one.

But it was the way he said it, as the most gifted political Quebec actor of his generation, that held the audience of business leaders, academics and students. No one has a better sense of the power of rhetoric to shape events.

Consider: "No vision of the future is possible if you do not begin by recognizing the reality of today.

Or: "We should beware of all monopolies, above all those on the truth."

And: "As the beneficiaries of the Quiet Revolution, shouldn't we feel guilty when we think of the mortgage we are about to leave?"

He was referring, of course, to Quebec's $118-billion provincial debt, the servicing of which eats up 16 per cent of Quebec's budget. That's about $7 billion a year that can't be invested in new infrastructure or higher education, both of which are starved for new money.

Bouchard told a story that just months after taking office in 1996, he received a draft release from a New York credit rating agency that was about to downgrade Quebec's credit.

Bouchard rounded up a couple of deputy ministers, flew to New York on the government plane, and went to see the boys on Wall St. He laid out his plan for "deficit zero" and implored the agency to withdraw the downgrade.

"Tell me how," the man from Moody's wondered, "after 40 years of deficits, you can balance the books in only three years."

It turned out that Bouchard was able to do so - but every year since then has been an interesting accounting exercise in Quebec, one that relies on transfer payments, equalization and increased dividends from Hydro-Quebec, Loto-Quebec and the liquor board.

But nothing is ever done about paying down the debt, and nothing will until the Charest government gets some cash flow in its new Generations Fund.

It is five years since Bouchard left public life. But he's still got it, and he still know how to leave a crowd, wanting more.

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