Big test for Charest's survival skills

Premier under pressure on issues ranging from bricks and mortar to multiculturalism

Climat politique au Québec

One year ago, 2007 looked like it might be a year of consolidation as Jean Charest's Liberal government prepared to confront a Parti Québécois weakened by both a lacklustre leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's promise of "open federalism."
Instead, the Quebec political scene became a muddle after the Liberals were reduced to minority government status in the March provincial election.
What lies ahead for 2008?
Prudence is in order when it comes to predictions, but there are signs that in the coming year Quebec will face challenges that could transform it in significant ways and put Charest's survival skills to the test. Challenges will come from every direction, from the global to the local, and will take many forms, from the most concrete to the most symbolic.
Let's start with the local and – literally – the concrete.
The past 18 months, from the tragic collapse of a bridge in Laval to the report of the Johnson commission on the incident, have been a wake-up call: Quebec's infrastructure is falling apart.
Not only bridges, but schools and hospitals are crumbling. In 2008, it will be time to act and this long-overdue rebuilding will test the capacity of governments to manage and fund the process.
The restructuring of education and health care also will test the government's capacity to generate solutions to problems that affect the lives of everyone.
Early in the year, the report of the working group on health care headed by Claude Castonguay will be made public. The report is widely expected to advocate injecting more so-called "private-sector solutions" into the system.
Armed with a pro-privatization report signed by the "father of Quebec medicare," the Charest government might feel it has the moral authority to shift to the right in social policy – and try to beat Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) at its own game.
In education, the Liberals have already implemented some of the ADQ's own recommendations, and they are expected to continue in this vein.
As a string of recent polls have shown the ADQ sinking to third place behind the PQ and the Liberals, Charest might find it impossible to resist the temptation to force Dumont to keep his government alive by outflanking the ADQ on the right.
This strategy should be on full display early in the year when the Liberal minority government introduces its second budget. If the ADQ is still faltering in the polls, Dumont likely will play the same supporting role grudgingly performed by the PQ last spring.
Another important challenge comes from the outside, as Quebec's manufacturing and forestry sectors struggle with the effects of the rising Canadian dollar. Although a relatively healthy economy should cushion some of the blow, the transition will be costly for many workers, but it probably won't make a big difference politically.
What will make a difference, however, is a third type of challenge Quebecers will face in 2008: redefining themselves.
One year ago, a succession of seemingly benign incidents ignited an underlying tension between the French-speaking majority and the province's cultural and religious minorities. The term "reasonable accommodation" became code for the cultural insecurity of a majority that never felt its status was sufficiently recognized by newcomers.
The rest is history. In the election, Dumont seized the opportunity to exploit this insecurity (as well as the weakness of his opponents) to make major gains outside of the Island of Montreal.
In the hope of sweeping the issue under the rug, Charest created the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which only made the issue bigger and more visible. Although the commission at times was an embarrassment to many Quebecers as it exposed a mean streak among a minority of bigots, it also provided a forum for people who needed to reflect and deliberate about a wide range of difficult issues.
The next step will come after the publication of the commission's report, and the Charest government's reaction to its recommendations will be crucial.
While, this report won't echo the hysteria of the folks from Hérouxville, it should take into account calls by both the PQ and the Liberals for a stronger affirmation of what they both defined – with understandable differences in emphasis – as Quebec's core values: notably, the predominance of the French language, the secularism of public institutions and equality between genders.
It is generally believed that the PQ has benefited in public opinion from the way it approached these issues, in spite of the controversy raised by its rather unrealistic call for a Quebec citizenship.
The Liberals also might stand to gain if the commission's report is well received, but the notoriety that the touring commissioners have gained might cast a shadow over Charest's hope to claim some of the commission's credit for himself.
Nonetheless, when the premier is handed the opportunity to implement some of the commission's more consensual recommendations, he will try to make the most of such a rare occasion to shine.
Curiously, the ADQ declined to present a brief to the commission. Although its usually ubiquitous leader claims that the party's position was so well known that it did not require a formal presentation, the ADQ contributed remarkably little of substance to the public debate on reasonable accommodation and might eventually be the biggest political loser.
These observations bring us to the key questions: Will 2008 see a realignment in the province's party system, with the ADQ effectively dislodging one of the two previously dominant parties? Will the system revert to the former status quo ante, maybe in a somewhat less polarized version, with the PQ and Liberals regaining their duopoly? Or are we going to see a long-term continuation of the current three-party muddle?
As things stand at the outset of the new year, the most credible scenario would seem to be the second, with a revitalized Parti Québécois that seems poised to reconquer the hearts of francophone voters in ADQ territory.
This process won't be easy, however, as the combination of Harper's "open federalism" and Dumont's epic quest for "autonomy" will continue to remain attractive for ambivalent nationalists. The first test could come in the widely expected federal election. The Bloc Québécois risks losing a number of seats to the Tories, as it is far from clear that Gilles Duceppe's party has benefited significantly from the PQ's recent gains.
Finally, on the international front, the very symbolic highlight of the year will be the October summit of the Francophonie in Quebec City, the high point of the city's 400th anniversary.
For Charest, who clearly craves the international stage, the highest profile event that any Quebec premier could hope to host is one that he definitely intends not to miss.
Obviously, Charest will do everything in his power to remain in his position until October, even if that means pandering to the ADQ on the budget or acting against his party's natural inclinations on reasonable accommodation.
There may be a welcome reward for Charest if he sticks around until the summit. Indeed, it is rumoured that France's Nicolas Sarkozy might take that opportunity to become the first serving French president since Charles de Gaulle's invocation of "Québec libre" in 1967 to take a clear pro-federalist position in public.
For Charest, such a coup might be an opportunity to revitalize his leadership or, perhaps more realistically, to end it on a positive note.
- source

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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