Strictly Quebec

Jean Charest will fight for a third term on identity issues

Jean Charest

To his detractors, Jean Charest is known as Patapouf, a French term denoting a doughy, inconsiderate slob. It was an easy image to exploit in his early days as premier when Charest, seen by these same detractors as a federalist stooge, stumbled from one disaster to another, his foot stuck firmly in his mouth and his popularity stuck in the cellar.

Five years on, with another election set for December 8, the moniker is less apropos. Not only has he lost weight, Charest has become popular enough for the election to be his to lose. Should he win, he will be the first premier since Maurice Duplessis to be given a consecutive third mandate–rather incredible for a man who, when dubbed “the worst premier in Quebec history” by his predecessor, could hardly muster a defense.

The reasons behind his recent success are also indications of what Quebec, and the rest of the country, can expect from a third Charest term. Absent from the headlines are the small-government projects–less taxes, less unions, higher rates for Quebec’s sacrosanct hydro electric power–that one might expect from someone of Charest’s ideological bent.

Instead, along with his emphasis on the economy, the premier has talked about big, bold ideas that pull at the heartstrings of your average Quebec populist: economic development of the north (read: more hydroelectric projects); free trade with Europe; a “global strategy to integrate immigrants”; and the much ballyhooed “cultural sovereignty”, a Robert Bourassa-era term that the former premier invoked to prove his Quebecois bona fides in his fight against the nascent Parti Québécois in 1973.

Charest has also pilloried the federal government along the way, arguably starving Stephen Harper of a majority government in the last federal election. In short, the most reliably federalist Quebec premier in recent memory has bundled himself in the fleur-de-lys and gone rogue–for appearance’s sake, at the very least.

“Mr. Charest believes that we are not going to leave the so-called ‘identity issues’ to be defined by our opponents anymore,” a senior Liberal advisor told Maclean’s this week. “This is something that Liberals in Quebec have allowed to happen for too long.”

At the heart of Charest’s lurch toward nationalism, observers say, is a calculated risk. With the collapse of Mario Dumont’s ADQ, which rose to Official Opposition by harping on the same ‘Quebec values’ last year, there is a large chunk of soft nationalist votes for the taking–votes that might otherwise tilt towards the Parti Québécois should Charest be perceived as being too comfortable in Ottawa’s embrace.

At the same time, there is certain danger in irritating the federal government too much, particularly in a time of tightening purse strings. Like Bourassa before him, Charest has to inch his way between these two precarious realities without favouring either side. (Perhaps it’s a good thing he’s 30 pounds lighter since the last election.)

“Jean Charest is pragmatic,” says Tim Powers, a long-time Tory strategist and supporter of Charest. “The Liberal Party of Quebec has long had a nationalistic element. For a long period of time, Charest had trouble being accepted by his party. This positioning probably helps among them.”

Since rumours of an impending election call began in late October, no less than seven MNAs have announced they won’t run again–including Quebec’s intergovernmental affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier. His resignation suggests Charest won’t likely attempt to get Quebec’s signature on Canada’s constitution.

Though it might be a sticking point for Charest, who was instrumental in the failed Meech Lake negotiations under Brian Mulroney, the constitution “is not a priority at all,” says the senior Liberal. “Right now, it’s economy, economy, economy.” The goal of another election, according to the Liberal source, is “stability”—which is to say, a majority government. Charest, it seems, is tired of sharing the driver’s seat with two increasingly loud opposition parties.

The spectre of going to provincial polls for a third time in five years (and less than two months after the federal election) has Quebecers wincing. Still, there are both symbolic and concrete indications that both the PQ and the ADQ don’t want to prop up Charest’s minority government any longer. For one, the two opposition parties recently scuttled Charest’s choice for a new Speaker of the House. It was a petty move seemingly designed to irritate the Premier. It certainly did.

As well, Maclean’s has learned that the government has been operating on its 2007 budget without it having been passed into law–largely, Liberals say, because the opposition has effectively been fillibustering the process since last May.

Theoretically, a third mandate for a staunchly federalist Quebec Premier should have the rest of the country rejoicing. To get there, though, Charest himself has made pains to detach himself from the very country he championed so often before. Patapouf is no more. For Jean Charest, it is strictly Quebec from here on in.