Another day, another PR disaster for Charest

The tepid Mulcair-Charest handshake served to point out their differences

Mont Orford

"The secret of success is sincerity," said French playwright Jean Giraudoux. "Once you can fake that, you've got it made."
And if you can't fake sincerity, then you get a scene like the much less than half-hearted show of reconciliation between Premier Jean Charest and Thomas Mulcair at the National Assembly yesterday.
It took more than a half-hour tete-a-tete between them after yesterday's Liberal caucus meeting to negotiate the details of Charest's subsequent statement to reporters and photo-op handshake with Mulcair.
Actually, it was more like a fingershake, an afterthought as Mulcair was already turning away wordlessly after listening stone-faced to Charest briefly tell reporters the two had agreed to "turn the page." And the physical contact was so brief that the television cameras caught it only because they were still rolling.
The body language between them was blue. There were only brief, faint smiles, and no armclasps or pats on the back. If they had had to lean any farther just to reach each other, they would have fallen on top of each other. There was so much cold air between them they should have been wearing mitts.
Or boxing gloves. If the bell that summons MNAs to the chamber had sounded at that exact moment, one of them might have thrown a punch.
Mulcair had been specifically summoned to the caucus meeting to defend his public contradiction of Charest last week over the controversial sale of Mount Orford to a private condo developer.
The premier had said Mulcair had approved the deal before Charest sacked him as environment minister. Mulcair insisted that he hadn't, and challenged the premier to produce any document approving the sale bearing Mulcair's signature, which Charest hasn't done.
Mulcair was far from repentant yesterday. On his way into the caucus meeting, he re-iterated his position to reporters. At the end of the meeting, he was still a member of the Liberal caucus. And although Charest declared the caucus to be "in solidarity" on the deal, Mulcair did not recant.
Later in the day, Mulcair and Pierre Paradis, another former environment minister who has opposed the deal, were conspicuously absent when the Liberals voted down a Parti Quebecois motion calling for the cancellation of the deal.
So much for Liberal solidarity. The real purpose of the PQ motion was to sow mischief in the Liberal ranks, and it succeeded marvelously.
Another day in the life of the Charest government, another public relations disaster.
Instead of trying to play down Mulcair's attack on him by shrugging it off, Charest kept the story alive by allowing Mulcair to be called on the carpet in caucus. Maybe he felt it was necessary to keep other Liberal MNAs from going public with their doubts about Orford. But yesterday's ill-advised photo-op was a show of anything but unity.
Usually known for their discipline, especially in office, the Liberals haven't been so openly divided while in power since the 1988 split over the language of commercial signs. A year before the customary end of their first term, they are acting like an exhausted second-term government on its way out.
With the next election due in a year, disgruntled or worried Liberal MNAs have started complaining anonymously to the press about Charest's leadership. And there are rumours that potential leadership successors have started lining up support for a campaign.
Still trailing badly in the polls and running out of time for a comeback, the Liberals have no margin of error left. And yet unforced errors are what Charest keeps committing. The combination of Mulcair's sacking and the Orford sale might be causing Liberals finally to lose patience with him.
Charest could always try to cut his political losses on Orford by holding up the sale so it can be referred to hearings. But after the Suroit thermal-energy plant and the full subsidies for private Jewish schools, Charest might not be able to afford yet another well-publicized retreat. And it would not change the fact that he had committed another error of judgment in the first place. Irreparable damage has already been done.

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