A new spring in Charest's step

Gouvernement Charest - à la remorque...

Where you might expect to find a chastened, humbled leader, Jean Charest - reaper of a Quebec government's lowest percentage of popular vote in 26 years and head of a minority government - is instead strangely energized. Almost a new man.
During the four years he led a majority government, Charest seemed at a loss. He could have simply carried through on specific promises he made in the 2003 electoral campaign, but when it came to the big, high-profile ones, he faltered. He had vowed to cut taxes, but once in power he backtracked, blaming the Parti Quebecois for leaving a hidden deficit.
He further angered a large portion of his electorate by making the municipal demerger process absurdly difficult. Even when formerly independent cities succeeded in leaving unsought mega-municipalities, under the Liberals' enabling legislation, they were stripped of most of their taxation powers and denied a meaningful political voice.

Charest's achievements - opposition to Ottawa over its refusal to honour Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and fiscal support for families with children, for instance - got lost in the uproar over long waiting lists for health care.
But now we're on to a new chapter, co-written by Mario Dumont of the Action democratique du Quebec. The co-authorship of the Liberals' legislative agenda is significant. There's the obvious point that the Liberals have taken the ADQ's most popular ideas and integrated them into their new session of the National Assembly. Ideas that the Liberals rejected as recently as March 25, the day before they lost their majority, are now warmly embraced.
Charest seems to operate best in opposition mode. Some politicians do. They like their backs to the wall. They're stimulated by being under pressure. The leader of a minority government has a limited number of options. The guesswork is gone: Charest has to pick the ideas that resonate with the electorate and he has, choosing to cut taxes for the middle class and allowing private health-care clinics as long as they operate under the public system.
Hence, too, Charest's eloquent defence of Quebec's role within Canada and of Quebecers' fear of loss of national identity faced with immigrant populations who want to defend their own identity.
Charest has also dropped some of the least popular measures from his previous government. No part of Orford Park is for sale. School report cards will go back to using numbers, not letters and descriptions of skills.
But he is in danger of replacing those irritants with some new ones. Borrowing liberally from the ADQ's playbook is one thing, but imitating Stephen Harper's government-by-priorities shows a real lack of imagination.
The problem with announcing a fixed number of initiatives - five in the case of the Conservatives and eight for the Quebec Liberals - is that once they're carried out, voters might start thinking they need a new government, one with a broader platform.

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