Beware, Premier Charest, the concrete is hardening

In that, Charest wouldn't be the first leader to think that style is more important than the substance. Most voters seem to disagree.

Élection partielle dans Kamouraska-Témiscouata

When I studied political science, one professor insisted that most polls should be taken with a big grain of salt.
Unless, he said, they show the same trend for a year and more. When that happens, it's a clear indication, as we say in French, that the concrete is starting to harden. And, he liked to add, concrete is a fairly hard material to break unless you've got the proper tools.
Well, Jean Charest and his government seem pretty well stuck.
Last Saturday, a CROP-La Presse poll not only showed Liberal Party support among francophones to be a dismal 17 per cent, it also reported a record-breaking 84-per-cent rate of dissatisfaction with the Charest government. This trend has been set for months.
In Monday's by-election, it translated into the Parti Quebecois's surprise victory in the Liberal fortress of Kamouraska-Temiscouata, the PQ's first since 1985.
Even Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois couldn't stop pinching herself. With polls also showing for months PQ support hovering around 45 per cent among francophones, this was pure icing on the cake.
While things can change fast in politics, this trend appears so entrenched that if the poll numbers were to translate into seats at the next election, Liberals would face their worst defeat in decades.
The premier's answer so far has been to try to shift the focus to the economy. He also keeps multiplying what he calls "concrete gestures." That is, he's been handing police forces more and more power to investigate the mounting allegations of corruption, collusion and patronage in the construction industry.
The day after the Liberal defeat in Kamouraska-Temiscouata, he even mused about the creation of a special fraud investigation unit modelled after New York's Department of Investigation.
But no luck for the premier. The idea was immediately dismissed as complete improvisation by opposition parties, and most editorialists and columnists.
On Wednesday, this constant shovelling of responsibilities and power into the police's backyard even prompted the president of the Association des policiers provinciaux to worry out loud about the dangers of ending up with some kind of "political police."
For most Quebecers and observers, it has become obvious that Charest is grasping at any straw to avoid holding the public inquiry that almost 80 per cent of Quebecers have been demanding for more than 18 months.
So now, the premier is heading for Tout le monde en parle -the popular talk show known for the quality and variety of its content and which racks up well over a million viewers every Sunday night.
His mission: To try, once again, to explain why he's not creating that special inquiry into corruption, collusion, patronage and the financing of political parties.
Mind you, it's a classic move. Most communications advisers to political leaders think that in hard times it helps more to go on talk shows than on public affairs programs.
They think that it humanizes an unpopular leader. Their belief is that how his message is communicated tends to be more important than its actual content.
They know that talk shows have a more relaxed and humorous setting, which Charest handles very well.
Plus, in the government's dire circumstances, they probably figure that things couldn't get that much worse. So why not go on a talk show? Charest had done it before and he usually gets his fair round of applause, and a talk show is a legitimate way to reach voters.
And who can dismiss the allure of more than a million viewers when 84 per cent of Quebecers, including Liberal supporters, no longer trust him or his own government?
That's all good in theory. But unless Charest comes up with fabulous and solid arguments on why most Quebecers are wrong to ask for that inquiry, this will have been wasted time and energy.
In that, Charest wouldn't be the first leader to think that style is more important than the substance. Most voters seem to disagree.

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