Jean Charest: Cut and roll credits

Martin Patriquin explains why losing was the best thing to happen to the Liberal Party of Quebec
Quebec Premier Jean Charest waves as he boards his campaign bus following a news conference Wednesday, August 15, 2012 in Sherbrooke, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

As a political narrative, you couldn’t ask for a better ending for Jean Charest. Think about it: longtime and long-unloved Premier goes into an election with the world against him, does much, much better than everyone thought, only to lose his own seat. He signs off as unapologetic as ever, though the tears in his eyes remind people why they liked the guy, just not some of the things he did. Cut and roll credits.

Practically speaking, losing Charest along with the government is probably the best thing for the Liberal Party of Québec. Here’s why.

1. He leaves unscathed within his own party. There really is truth to cliché: one of the astonishing things about the Liberal Party under Charest was its discipline. The party has been under siege from the Parti Québécois and in the court of public opinion for three years. Throughout this time, Charest has flip-flopped on key issues, including most recently the decision to hold a public inquiry into the province’s construction industry. This reversal—he said for two years that his government wouldn’t hold such a thing—doubly hurt the government’s credibility: it didn’t reap the public support it might have had he called it earlier, and it suggested the Liberals had something to hide. Yet as much as it may have suffered from Charest’s flub, there wasn’t a single off-note sounded by his caucus or ministers. No one called for his resignation, or vied for his job. They just smiled as they mouthed their new talking points.

That probably would have changed had Charest led the Liberals in opposition. Sure, this minority government may not last four years—the previous one didn’t even last half that long—but any time in the wilderness would surely grate on the ambitions of Charest’s presumptive heirs. Could he really lead the Liberals back to power? Would he have the patience and humility to sit lower down the totem pole after nine years at it pinnacle? And what potential harm would Charest himself have on the Liberal brand, especially as its cast under …

2. … The long shadow of the Charbonneau Commission. The inquiry into the construction industry is set to start-up once again on September 17. The more cynical among us think Charest called the election expressly to preempt more bad news. There’s been plenty of that during the commission hearings already, including the unchallenged testimony from Jacques Duchesneau that the Liberals purposefully stymied Duchesneau’s progress for fear of what Liberal connections he might uncover. To wit: the construction industry’s dodgy practices, while dodgy well before the Liberals were elected in 2003, increased exponentially once the party was in power. (There’s a look at all of this here.) It harvested the lion’s share of donations from construction and engineering firms, who in turn received the often bloated contracts from the government itself. Transports Quebec “has become the cash-generating and laundering outfit of choice for Quebec’s formidable organized crime network.”

Charest dodges a very sticky wicket just by the virtue of not being there. Leaderless and in opposition, the Liberals are suddenly much less of a target. Rather, the attention will fall to the PQ, itself implicated during the Charbonneau Commission (though to a lesser extent). It’s worth noting that, though it was quick to praise Duchesneau’s work when it embarrassed the Liberals, the PQ was quite prickly at Duchesneau’s contention that the vast majority of party financing was dirty and ill-gotten. Tellingly, it was a lawyer for the PQ, not the Liberals, who challenged Duchesneau on this during this summer’s hearings.

3. A fine dovetail. Charest’s exit paves the way for a Liberal leadership race. Actually, that’s the wrong word. Coronation? Investiture? Blessing? Whatever it is,  it is a far smoother and more pleasant affair than the PQ equivalent, which on more than one occasion has been akin to throwing a bunch of cats into a bag and filming the results. Rather, Liberal leaders tend to glide into position on an ooze of self-assurance, charmed media coverage and the widely held assumption that he/she will take power sooner rather than later. Not having Charest around makes the party that much easy to rebrand. By losing his seat, Charest may well have made it that much easier for the Liberals to win again.