SparMail: so Jean Charest and Francois Legault don't walk into a bar...

MARTIN PATRIQUIN Oh, hi Phil. How’s the weather in Toronto? Here, it’s sunny with promises, gusty with hubris and there’s a pretty damn good chance of rhetoric. Speaking of, did you hear/read/smell Charest’s speech yesterday? He’s back, baby! rising like a phoenix from the ashes of, uh, his own government! It’s amazing to watch: he prorogues parliament, takes a few hours off from sweating out the go-back-to-work-now business with the province’s prosecutors, and all of a sudden it’s Charest 3.0.

This is the narrative the Liberals sold, anyway, and apparently people like us have bought it whole hog. From Le Journal de Montréal/Québec’s “He’s Still Got Some Breath In Him” to CP’s “Charest hits the reset button on legislature” to the Globe’s “The Survivor of Quebec” to The Gazette’s “Charest paints broad picture for Quebec”, it seems selling Charest’s Don’t Call It A Comeback is easy as pie for the narrative-obsessed headline writers of this country.

And Charest laid it on thick, with 62 minutes of promises (intensive English courses for the young’uns! Gas exploration! Electric and buses!), capped by a feel-good bit about how “Canada is best when it marches ahead influenced by Quebec.” As the Globe’s (excellent) Quebec guy Rhéal Seguin points out today, “[w]ith the PQ threatening to take power in the next election, Mr. Charest served warning that he alone could fend off the separatist threat.” It’s one of the abiding delights of living in this province: Charest is woefully, chronically unpopular, yet Quebec is the only place on the continent if not beyond whereby the very legitimate practice of ‘throwing the bums out’ comes at the expense of outright doom for the rest of the country.

Or does it? Or maybe, just maybe, will national unity come at the hands of a former péquiste minister and his trusty federalist operative?

I’ll be totally honest: I like the idea that François “I Wrote The Separatist Budget” Legault and Charles “Big Liberal” Sirois got together in an attempt to put an end to the tic-tac, heave-ho federalist/separatist sideshow to which we’ve all been privy for, oh, 40 years or so. I also like the idea that, Legault’s right-leaning credentials aside, there is an emphasis on culture and the extremely important role teachers and professors play in society—and how short-changing them (chronically, in Quebec’s case) you shortchange society. In other words, there seems to be place for nuance in their (admittedly thin) ‘manifesto’ in that it’s not a wayward, ADQ-style virage à droite. I also like that, if this is to become a party, I can’t see Legault or Sirois running a slate of untested so-and-so’s, a la ADQ circa 2007/8.

There are any number of problems with the Legault/Sirois deal, the least of which is that they have yet to say what their going to do. (My money’s on a new political party.) There’s a remarkable pie-in-the-sky feeling to that manifesto—much like one of Charest’s speeches, come to think of it. What’s the Franco 416 take on this, my friend?

PHIL GOHIER My favourite part of Charest’s speech yesterday was his, erm, ‘pronouncement’ that students should “vouvoient” (that is, use “vous” instead of “tu”) their teachers. All the way from Toronto, you could instantly hear every crank/editorial writer in the province mutter “you’re goddamn right they should” under their breath. As frustrating as Charest’s duck-and-weave game has been these last few years, he’s got a way of occasionally reminding people he’s pretty good at this politics business (which, it should be said, is entirely different from governing). As you correctly point out, this speech was one of those reminders.

As for François Legault and Charles Sirois and whatever it is they’re doing, I’m much, much, much less hopeful than you. Their manifesto is yet another shining example of Quebec politicians’ enduring ability to deliver seemingly stern but ultimately meaningless lectures on how to do things better. It’s worth noting how often these lectures are delivered by people who once had the power to, you know, actually do something about all these problems—call it the “Lucien Bouchard syndrome.” I mean, if teachers are being shortchanged, doesn’t Legault bear at least a bit of the responsibility for it? After all, the man was minister of education for four years.

Moreover, even the most generous description I can come up with for Legault’s ideas doesn’t include the word ‘ambitious’. Read this Q&A he did with La Voix de L’est, for instance. The blandness of it all is overwhelming: Quebec should exploit its natural resources, but do it responsibly and not at all if people object; Quebec is falling behind the U.S.; Quebec has too many bureaucrats; nationalism is legitimate, but the national question is a distraction. It’s whiny and, perhaps worst of all, it’s conventional.

MP I agree: it’s not altogether clear what he wants to do, or how (or even whether) he’s going to do it, and all that. I wish there was a bit more meat to the manifesto, like I wish Legault and Sirois could have pulled a few brand names to back them up. Still, the fact remains that there is a significant orphaned vote out there—people who see a vote for the Libs or the PQ as a little but a ticket to the continual Fed/Sov Gong Show. Many, many people want out of that tent; just look at the support for the ADQ in 2007. And that party, remember, well-defined platform that went to seed because of inexperience in its rank. So I guess if you were to ask me if I wanted a well-defined party without the means to execute, or an ill-defined not-yet-a-party party with some serious heft behind it—the kind of thing that can attract those brand names and flesh out policy, in other words—I’ll take the latter for $400, Alex. Agreed, it’s not perfect, but anything’s better than the status quo.

Here’s a question for you RE: Legault: this is the guy, after all, who wrote the PQ’s Year One budget—the middle finger to anyone who thinks Quebec can’t go at it alone. And now he’s saying that, uh, Quebec shouldn’t keep trying to go at it alone. What do you think of his relachement of the sovereignty project? What consequences, if any, will it have with that great, wide band of similarly aged baby boomer sovereignists of Legault’s ilk?

PG I think it speaks to the fact English Canada is no longer the biggest obstacle standing in the way of an independent Quebec—boredom is. It’s just not as exciting as it used to be to be a sovereigntist. Hell, people have even figured out how to be passive sovereigntists. Bouchard and Legault are perfect examples of this: they’d rather say they don’t care whether or not Quebec becomes independent than say they’re no longer sovereignists.

What that means for the PQ is that it won’t be as easy as Pauline Marois seems to think it’ll be to whip everyone into a frenzy when Ottawa won’t accede to intentionally ridiculous demands.  The polite corners of the sovereigntist movement are increasingly inclined to find ways to agree that the status quo isn’t so bad and there are more pressing problems. The result is that it forces Marois to cater to the militant wing of the party that never trusted her in the first place. Who knows what happens then.

MP Ha! “Passive sovereignists.” So you’re saying that boredom has reduced much of the rank and file to an oxymoron, much like ‘military intelligence’ and “business ethics”?

PG Yeah, pretty much. Somewhere, Jacques Parizeau is calling them wimps as we speak.

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