Charest does damage control


Friday, January 30, 2004
By George, he's got it! Jean Charest remains determined to re-engineer Quebec, but he now seems willing to soften his government's approach and message if only to better reach his goal. That's called good, old-fashioned damage control.
Like other leaders, Charest is known to have difficulty listening to advice that differs from his own opinion. But he sure can read. Be it SOM, Léger Marketing or yesterday's CROP poll, they all point to a dissatisfaction rate of more than 60 per cent toward his government.
The threat of a general strike in the spring, the rising costs of many public services and the bungling of the Kanesatake crisis are bleeding Liberal votes. Polls also show the premier's popularity has decreased dramatically, while a few of his more visible ministers actually saw theirs go up.
One problem has been like your average Conservative leader - Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard come to mind - Charest personally carried the ball on way too many dossiers, especially unpopular ones such as the softening of the Labour Code to allow greater contracting out of public services to the private sector. (Fast quiz: Can you even name the labour minister?)
So enter the damage-control process. The first visible sign of it is a new division of labour: less visibility for the less popular Charest and more for some of his ministers. This week, Finance Minister Yves Séguin was the first to step up to the plate.
The unprecedented public pre-budgetary hearings allow him to make the news almost every day. As he benefits from this priceless visibility, the more popular Séguin made sure to start sending a more conciliatory, even progressive, message to Quebecers.
In a major departure from Charest's philosophy, the finance minister did lay it on a bit thick. Some of his statements at the hearings made him sound like a Che Guevara in comparison with Charest's clear-cut conservative, pro-business agenda.
"It might be time," Séguin said, "that governments declare that there is a social contribution to retrieve from the pockets of taxpayers who are better off and from companies that prosper. It won't kill them!" Higher taxes for the rich and for private companies? Sounds like a revolution in the neoconservative lexicon.
Séguin even managed to seduce some hard-line social groups when he confessed a newfound passion for social housing. Not only did he profess "poorer Quebecers are a great preoccupation" for the government, but he also promised, à la Kennedy, the next budget must "bring forth hope and solutions."
Gone, for the moment at least, is last year's reverse Kennedy-style statement: "Don't ask what the state can do for you, but what you can do without the state."
Charest also called upon Benoît Pelletier, his soft-spoken intergovernmental affairs minister. First, Pelletier got busy bailing out Public Security Minister Jacques Chagnon after his disastrous handling of the Kanesatake crisis. Second, along with Family Minister Claude Béchard, he'll be taking up the negotiations that could lead to the long-awaited creation of a Quebec parental-leave program, now that the Court of Appeal has confirmed this is strictly a provincial jurisdiction.
As for Charest himself, he'll want to be more visible when it's good news time such as today, in Ottawa, where he's meeting with other premiers and Prime Minister Paul Martin. Quebecers will surely prefer to see their premier bring back more money for the starving health-care system than to see him return from Davos with hardly any new investments to show.
Still, Charest is staying on the safe side. Although premiers don't usually take ministers along for such short meetings, he's taking Benoît Pelletier.
Other more discreet damage-control changes are being made. Certain ministries are reshuffling some of their communication staff in the hope of turning the tide of angry public opinion. Charest is said to be calling on outside help to improve communications at his office and throughout the government. His longtime press attaché, Christian Barette, is being replaced by Marie-Claude Champoux. His departure will allow for at least some renewal at the premier's office.
In the continuing Kanesatake crisis, Charest called on Jean Bazin, a former Tory senator, to strengthen faltering communications between his government and Grand Chief James Gabriel.
Of course, most of this is communications-oriented and won't change much of the government's more conservative philosophy in the short term. But should Séguin, Pelletier, Béchard and Health Minister Philippe Couillard, among others, continue to present a kinder, gentler side of the Charest government, and poll numbers should eventually start returning the favour, who knows what could happen.

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