Back from the dead: Charest might be poised for huge political comeback

Québec 2007 - Analyse

THE SEVEN million or so people of Quebec are notoriously unforgiving of their hockey teams. A mediocre streak, such as the Montreal Canadiens have suffered recently, is greeted by calls for players to be traded or the management sacked. They are far more indulgent of their provincial governments. They tend to get a second term no matter how the first one went.

For a long time Jean Charest, the province’s Liberal premier since April 2003, looked likely to buck this trend. During most of his first term his party’s approval ratings, and especially his own, have languished. But this week he called an election for March 26, and the polls suggest he is well placed to win it.

That says quite a lot, not so much about Charest, but about the disarray of the separatist opposition and the recent quiet effectiveness of Canadian federalism.
That Quebec should remain a part of mainly English-speaking Canada can never be taken for granted. Segolene Royal, France’s gaffe-prone Socialist candidate for president, stirred up Canadians recently by calling for self-determination for the French-speaking province.

A referendum on independence in 1995 was lost by a margin as thin as a maple leaf, with 49.4 per cent voting in favour. Some 45 per cent of Quebecers still tell pollsters they would vote Yes in another referendum. For much of Charest’s term the pro-independence opposition, the Parti Quebecois, has been way ahead in the opinion polls.

That reflected disappointment with the Liberals. Charest promised radical change. He would slash taxes in the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in North America while also improving health care through a "re-engineered" state employing fewer bureaucrats and with the private sector providing many public services. But his tax cuts amounted to much less than the promised $1 billion a year, while the attempts to rationalize services were often unpopular. His administration has been steady but uninspiring.

Two things have come to his rescue. The first is the opposition’s own troubles. The PQ’s leader, Bernard Landry, a tough and experienced former premier, quit in a huff after receiving only 76 per cent in a confidence vote of party members in 2005.

His party’s supporters hoped that his young replacement, Andre Boisclair, would rejuvenate the sovereigntist movement.

Instead, Boisclair has managed to alienate many Quebecers. Social conservatives were offended by his admission that he used cocaine while a minister in Landry’s government. He is also openly gay. Others dislike his thin-skinned haughtiness and infuriating evasiveness.

"Where does he stand on any issue? It’s hard to know," says Christian Bourque of Leger Marketing, a polling firm.

Charest’s other boost has come from the rest of Canada. It has helped that the country’s economy is thriving. Unemployment in Quebec is still more than a point above the national average, but since 2003 it has fallen from 9.1 per cent to 7.7 per cent. The biggest helping hand has been that of Stephen Harper, who became Canada’s prime minister in January 2006.

Harper is a Conservative. But federal and provincial politics often run along separate tracks in Canada. With a solid base in the west, Harper quickly concluded that his best hope of turning his current parliamentary minority into a majority lay in winning more seats in Quebec.

One way to do that was to help Charest (himself a former federal Conservative minister) beat back the sovereigntist threat — a desire close to the heart of most English-speaking Canadians.

Harper has been a regular visitor to the province, often bearing gifts. These were both material — extra federal funds — and symbolic. Last autumn, he stole some of the separatists’ clothes by pushing through Parliament a motion recognizing that Quebecers "form a nation within a united Canada."
This month he was back in the province with $350 million to fund Quebec’s climate-change plan. The federal budget, on March 19, may offer more.
Harper’s prim social conservatism does not go down particularly well in more free-wheeling Quebec. But good relations between Quebec City and Ottawa are a welcome change in a province used to constant bickering between the two. They also deny the separatists a favorite campaign theme: that Canadian federalism cannot work to Quebec’s benefit.

Support for independence nowadays has much to do with calculation of the costs and benefits, says François Rocher, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa.

"Nationalism driven by resentment and cultural insecurity is in decline. The issue is more and more, ‘What can we do better by ourselves?’ "

In this cautious atmosphere, the PQ might be wise to show caution of its own. But hard-line nationalists inside Boisclair’s party do not want him to campaign simply as an alternative to the Liberals. They want to put sovereignty at the centre of the campaign, and to promise an early sovereignty referendum if the party wins.

In the province’s current mood, that could alienate the 20 per cent of undecided voters in the middle. It may also push votes towards a third party, Action Democratique du Quebec.
Formed by disaffected Liberals, this party describes itself as "autonomist" — a constitutional halfway house that suits Quebec’s newly pragmatic nationalism. It suffers the usual fate of third parties in first-past-the-post voting systems, doing better at byelections than in the real thing. But its young leader, Mario Dumont, is popular, and the voting habits of Quebecers are not as predictable as they used to be.

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