Adieu, Jean Charest

Ah, Jean Charest, we hardly knew ye, and we who believe in Canadian federalism should miss you when you're gone. But we probably won't.

Charest en fin de régime - L'art de ne rien faire

Par Peter Robb
Ah, Jean Charest, we hardly knew ye, and we who believe in Canadian federalism should miss you when you're gone. But we probably won't.
That's because Mr. Charest has been a most diffident premier of Quebec and a disappointment much of his political career. A man seemingly of great potential, he has not shown the attention to detail and stamina required of political leadership.

He has been a great campaigner -- remember his performance at the rally in Montreal on the eve of the 1995 referendum vote where he was the best speaker on that stage?

But apart from these flashes of brilliance, he has not shone. So why will we miss him? Because he could be the last Quebec premier who actually believes completely in the idea of a united Canada.

And we had better get prepared for the eventuality coming sooner rather than later, despite the recent protestations from his caucus that he has its full support. Any hockey coach will tell you that's the kiss of death.
In fact, the evidence of his imminent departure is tellingly displayed in the polls.
Mr. Charest's minority government passed its first test last week when the opposition Parti Quebecois decided not to show up in the Quebec National Assembly en masse and topple the government.

But while his government may have survived for now, it is on a pretty short leash.

And Mr. Charest's own personal political career is, by necessity, on a death watch. Politics is a blood sport, after all.

How could a budget that offers massive income tax cuts, pumps more money into health care and education, reduces the overall debt, rebuilds infrastructure and advances an environmental strategy come so close to defeat without any apparent negative consequence in the polls for the opposition?

On the contrary, in spite of the fact that both opposition parties appeared absolutely committed to defeating the minority Liberal government, their polling numbers did not drop; in fact they strengthened. Mr. Charest's Liberals, on the other hand, were headed south into third-party status and a virtual wipeout among francophone voters.

Now that's unpopularity of a kind not seen since the dying days of the Brian Mulroney government that eventually led to the Conservative wipeout in the 1993 federal election and more than a decade in opposition.
So it is almost certain that sometime very soon the Quebec Liberal party will begin looking for a new leader.

It's nothing personal, really. The Liberal party is nothing if not pragmatic. It surely recognizes the precarious state of its minority government. If it is toppled, leaving Mr. Charest facing a rejuvenated Parti Quebecois under its new leader, likely Pauline Marois, and the surging Action democratique led by the youthful Mario Dumont, the only clearly federalist party in Quebec politics is in trouble.

So a change in leadership looks to be necessary for the good of the party, and, in the short term, for the good of the country, which is by now totally unprepared for a revived separatist movement in Quebec.

But in its somnolence, the rest of Canada should be aware that Quebec's constitutional paradigm shifted significantly in the recently concluded provincial vote.

Now the buzzword is "autonomy": The concept is one put forward by Mario Dumont, who, while not wishing to have a referendum on outright sovereignty, prefers to move Quebec, slowly but surely, out of its jurisdictional overlaps with the federal government.

Mr. Dumont's concept of Canada is the old two-nations theory in which Quebec is the equal of the other provinces combined.

The ADQ platform states: "Quebec's development as a distinct nation naturally happens by an enlargement of our autonomy." In that instance relations with the rest of Canada through the federal government in Ottawa would be as between equals. The ADQ also muses about constitutional reform and the creation of a constitution for the newly "autonomous state of Quebec."

This is the kind of gradualist agenda put forward by more cautious nationalists from time to time over the past half century or so. Slowly, ever so slowly, more and more powers come to Quebec and before anyone realizes it the country has been broken up.

At least Mr. Charest wanted to work with the federal government within the existing framework.

But the shifting sands of Quebec's constitutional destiny may force the Quebec Liberal party to tilt in favour of nationalism when it next selects a leader. The party may conclude that choosing an ardent federalist, in the mould of Mr. Charest, will not bring victory: Perhaps an autonomist would. If that happens, when that happens, we will lament Mr. Charest's passing from the scene.
Peter Robb is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.

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