Lisee’s departure a significant loss


The Gazette (Montreal), September 20, 1999, Final Edition, p.B3

Jean-Francois Lisee’s departure from the premier’s office has been interpreted like a Kremlin shakeup announced in Pravda – there must be more to it than that.

It can’t just be that, after five years as speechwriter to Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, the separatist spinmeister is suffering from burnout and wants to spend more time with his infant daughter.

As someone who has been there and done that, I’m prepared to take his word for it. Being a speechwriter to a prime minister or premier is a burnout job, and after five years, all you want is your own voice back. Working for Bouchard, himself a gifted speechwriter and a perfectionist down to his commas, would make the days even longer.

Lisee was a superb practitioner of the speechwriting craft. Not only did he have a sense of words and occasions, he used both to leverage his strategic designs as communications director for successive Pequiste premiers.

In that sense, make no mistake, Lisee’s departure is a significant loss to the sovereignty movement. It’s a particular loss to Bouchard, with whom Lisee had a horse-and-jockey relationship.

As for his relationship with Parizeau, it may have been defined on referendum night in 1995, when Lisee handed him a gracious concession text, and his client allowed as how it wasn’t what he wanted to say. What he evidently had in mind was political suicide, as in money and ethnic votes, a reminder that a politician is never more than a single sentence away from oblivion.

Lisee had a tendency, characteristic of Parti Quebecois communications strategists, of being too cute and too clever. Thus, when he appropriated the ghost of Robert Bourassa, by putting some of his words in Bouchard’s mouth at a PQ campaign event, he got caught as the Liberals ran a counter-spin reminding the media that Lisee was the author Le Tricheur, a book that was exceedingly unfair to Bourassa.

In Le Tricheur, Lisee suggested that Bourassa should have been leading the march to sovereignty after the failure of Meech Lake in 1990, when the only reason he was in front of that parade was to slow it down. Bourassa, who hardly ever took anything personally, was outraged by Lisee’s book. Bouchard’s references to Bourassa in last fall’s campaign gave Jean Charest the opportunity to vent some outrage of his own, and to reclaim the mantle of a figure revered by a party he had only recently joined.

After that, the core Liberal vote went home, and Charest went on to win a majority of the popular vote, depriving Bouchard of the vital winning condition of legitimacy.

But Bouchard would not have been positioned to win the election had it not been for Lisee’s strategy morphing Charest into Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who slashed and burned social programs, while creating a wave of nostalgia for something called « the Quebec model. » The Liberals, incredibly, let their leader be tainted as heartless, and allowed the PQ to steal the Quiet Revolution, the greatest achievement of Liberal public policy in this century.

Lisee may have been cynical, his tactics may have been driven by polls and focus groups, but he was undeniably a brilliant communications strategist.

His departure is read as an ominous wall poster for the sovereignty movement, because Lisee had said last fall that he personally wouldn’t stick around if a referendum weren’t on the horizon.

Clearly, one isn’t. Lisee’s resignation was still the buzz in the political class last week when, by way of opinion reinforcement, Le Devoir published a Sondagem poll that confirmed that Quebecers don’t want a referendum anytime soon.

More than two Quebecers out of three don’t want another referendum, and nine in 10 don’t want one in this mandate. As an afterthought, more than half the respondents, including nearly a quarter of PQ voters, don’t even want Bouchard to try to assemble his famous winning conditions. These are hugely negative attitudinals, which suggest the voters might punish the government just for calling a referendum.

These numbers bounced all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Japan where Bouchard, on a Team Canada trade mission with Jean Chretien, allowed as how he could say that 47 per cent of respondents in the same poll were still in favour of sovereignty, but that this wasn’t the place to say it, so he wouldn’t, even though he just had.

In fact, with the sovereignty option still registering in the high 40s, it’s a bit early to be writing off the sovereignty movement, or even the prospect of a referendum in this mandate. As Charest has put it: « Just because people don’t want a referendum doesn’t mean they won’t show up for one. »