Charest channels Bourassa at weekend Liberal meeting

The premier is more nationalist, and more comfortable in his job

Élection Québec - 8 décembre 2008

Since he gave up his ambition to become prime minister of Canada and accepted a draft into provincial politics 10 years ago, Jean Charest has often seemed to be a reluctant soldier in an unfamiliar land.
But especially since last spring, Charest has seemed increasingly comfortable and confident in provincial politics.
There are several possible explanations for the transformation, which was apparent on the weekend at the meeting of the Quebec Liberal Party's general council in Lévis.
He has matured, having celebrated his 50th birthday last St. Jean Baptiste Day. Changes in his entourage a year ago added experienced advisers from the era of former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa and resulted in a less tiring schedule for him. He abandoned ambitious reforms in favour of a managerial strategy emphasizing the avoidance of controversy, or, as Bourassa called it, the preservation of "social peace."
Since then Charest has enjoyed success, becoming the most popular leader in provincial politics after his political near-death experience in last year's election.
Charest has often been lucky in politics, and he is currently benefitting from the unwitting kindness of others. His opposition is divided and in disarray.
And the current federal election campaign has presented him with an opportunity to acquire some credibility with voters as a nationalist and a defender of Quebec's interests. As a federalist recruit from Ottawa, he has lacked that.
He has criticized the Conservatives for their government's cuts to cultural programs. And since the Parti Québécois automatically supports the Bloc Québécois and Action démocratique du Québec has aligned itself with the Conservatives, Charest has been able to say that his is the only provincial party independent of federal entanglements.
That was a major theme of his opening speech to the Liberal council, the most nationalist speech he has ever delivered.
He repeatedly referred to Quebec as a nation, and reiterated his call, in response to the federal cuts, for the province to have "control" (maîtrise d'oeuvre) over federal cultural spending in the province.
Charest also wants Quebec to continue to receive its "historic" share of this spending, since it significantly exceeds the province's proportion of the country's population. He is vague, however, about how provincial control would affect the Quebec operations of such national bodies as the CBC.
He went farther in his speech than the "identity" policy that the party adopted the next day. The proposed policy had been watered down earlier this year after members objected that it was too nationalist, though it still calls for the Quebec government to have a veto over the granting or renewal of broadcast licences in the province.
Still, the council delegates showed none of the discomfort with nationalism that had been apparent at the party's policy convention only six months ago, and they enthusiastically applauded Charest's speech.
Charest has likened his call for control over culture to that of his predecessor, Robert Bourassa, in the 1970s for "cultural sovereignty." But that was not the only way in which Charest appeared to channel Bourassa at the meeting.
The theme of his closing speech, accompanied by a dazzling visual presentation on three giant screens behind him, was economic management and, in particular, what he calls his Plan North "vision" of northern resource development. It was a technologically updated version of Bourassa's announcement of the James Bay hydroelectric project at a Liberal gathering in 1971, though Charest actually had nothing to announce, delivering a progress report on projects, many of them private, that are already under way.
But in a period of economic uncertainty, it allowed Charest to beat his adversaries in laying claim to the issue of economic management, which has been the Liberals' strongest issue since the days of Bourassa.
So with his two speeches on the weekend, Charest gave himself two issues on which he could call a provincial election after the federal one.

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