Jean Charest’s buddies in bad times

While the corruption scandal rages on, Liberals can’t seem to get enough of their tainted former leader
Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Aside from three consecutive winning campaigns, arguably the best gift that Jean Charest gave the Liberal Party of Quebec was losing his seat along with September’s election. It afforded a graceful exit, avoiding the indignity of him having to sit in Opposition after nine unbroken years of power. It has also allowed for the party’s first leadership campaign in nearly three decades—a golden opportunity, some might say, for Liberals to distance themselves from Charest’s scandal-plagued, chronically unpopular last few years in government.

Yet the exact opposite seems to be happening in the run-up to the leadership convention in four months. Neither the party nor the three declared leadership candidates who wish to lead it have attempted in any way to distance themselves from Charest. Far from it. “After having led the Liberal party for more than 14 years and the government since 2003, Jean Charest leaves an economically strong government, having fulfilled many great achievements, and a party in excellent health,” reads a dedication to Charest on the party’s website.

It may seem an odd thing for a party to be so smitten with a former leader who regularly scored near-record dissatisfaction levels throughout his last mandate. It is all the more strange considering that an inquiry into corruption in the province’s construction industry, reluctantly called by Charest himself in 2011, recently heard testimony alleging three of his former senior ministers curried the favour of (and solicited donations from) a Mobbed-up construction magnate. It has only reinforced the general view that under Charest, the Liberals were home to dodgy fundraising practices and populated by a host of less-than-savoury characters.

Yet unlike the knives-out approach the Parti Québécois had for the likes of Lucien Bouchard, André Boisclair and even René Lévesque, the Liberal Party of Quebec traditionally reveres its former leaders as it moves on. It speaks to the party’s post-electoral, business-as-usual attitude; there will be a new leader six months after electoral defeat, as opposed to nearly three years for the federal Liberals. The leader, whoever it is, will be firmly ensconced when the Parti Québécois presents its first budget, expected in March. And there is an unspoken, yet widely held, contention within the party that it will return to power should the PQ government fall.

“We were very sad that Jean Charest resigned,” Liberal youth wing president Kevin-Alexandre Lavoie recently told Maclean’s. “The Charest we knew was a man of the people, always listening, always interested by the people he met . . . He was always able to reassure his staff, even when the bad publicity was at its peak. He knew where he was going, he had a clear vision and it was easy to rally behind him.”

Pierre Moreau, a former transportation minister under Charest and one of three declared candidates to replace him, called Charest in the days before he threw in his hat. The two, Moreau says, spoke for two hours. “There’s no need to distance ourselves from Charest.”

Charest, Moreau continued, “was very generous and close with the people around him, and he rallied his caucus and the party faithful.”

His only criticism is that Charest was almost too successful. Moreau believes there is a problem with the Quebec Liberal brand that goes beyond the issue of corruption. He notes how only 19 per cent of French Quebecers self-identify as Liberals. “When you have three consecutive governments, when you have a leader who’s that strong, the party begins to get a little sickly,” he says.

Fellow leadership contender (and odds-on favourite) Philippe Couillard had a reportedly acrimonious falling out with Charest that ultimately led to his exit from politics in 2008. Yet today the former health minister speaks highly of his former foe. “History will be much kinder to Jean Charest than the media has been,” he says, noting that he, too, spoke with Charest before deciding to run. He said Charest set an example with his “good economic management” that resulted in “the creation of wealth in Quebec, and the redistribution of that wealth to lower economic classes.”

Certainly, part of Charest’s appeal was his deft economic hand. He leaves Quebec’s books in relatively good order. His handling of economic files with former finance minister and current leadership candidate Raymond Bachand even garnered praise from ardent sovereignist and current PQ minister Jean-François Lisée, who has noted, “The numbers tell us that Quebec is one of the rare Western societies—along with Germany—that best weathered the economic crisis.” Charest vaunted his economic record throughout the election campaign; it is perhaps why, despite those ominous poll numbers, he brought his party to within less than one percentage point (and four seats) from regaining power.

Yet Charest’s reign is far from untainted. The Charbonneau commission looking into corruption in the province’s construction industry recently heard from Lino Zambito, a former construction company owner who, according to his testimony, organized a fundraising event for former vice-premier Nathalie Normandeau and used dummy donors, including his wife and parents, to funnel campaign money to her. Zambito also alleged that organizers for two other senior Charest ministers, David Whissell and Line Beauchamp, solicited him for a combined $80,000. Oddly, and this may speak to the resiliency of the Liberal brand, Zambito’s barrage of allegations against three former Charest cabinet ministers hasn’t seemed to hurt the party. A recent Léger Marketing poll suggested Liberal support is at roughly the same level as it was prior to the election. In fact, Bachand seems to be somewhat enjoying the Charbonneau show. “I get bored when the waters are calm, I like it when things are frothy,” he told Maclean’s.

It’s entirely possible that the continued Charest love-in is an example of the Quebec Liberal party’s tradition of not airing its dirty laundry in public. More often than not, Liberal leadership changes have been coronations, in which party stalwarts chose a candidate while all others, keenly aware of the process, graciously demur from running. When leadership races do happen, they are relatively genteel in nature; the most colourful instance in 1983’s leadership campaign occurred when one candidate called eventual winner Robert Bourassa “arrogant” in the last days of the campaign. It’s a far cry from the country-fair whack-a-mole affairs that are PQ leadership battles.

This institutional reserve has served the Liberal Party of Quebec well. It has governed the province for 59 of the last 100 years, and not one of its leaders has left office with a knife in his back—which is more than can be said for the PQ. Surely, the extended embrace of Jean Charest is a sign of genuine affection within the party he once led. It also happens to be good politics.