Charest hopes to change Quebec in four years


Friday, January 23, 2004
Few politicians, except perhaps Lucien Bouchard, have undergone more incarnations than Jean Charest. From federal Conservative to Quebec Liberal, from Canada's saviour to Quebec's increasingly unpopular premier, Charest now faces what he knows best: the crossing of yet another political desert.
No polls, no rumblings, not even from within his own ranks, stand to deter him. Charest might not be quite the Terminator some make him out to be, but he does seem determined to change the Quebec model even more, weakened as it already has been by Bouchard's zero-deficit policy.
Charest's goal is clear: to govern in a way that can align Quebec with the rest of Canada and North America, both politically and economically. Call it a normalization process of sorts. In case he loses the next election, he wants to have it all done by the end of one mandate.
But Charest is gambling that he will win next time nevertheless. Within the next couple of years, he says, Quebecers will harvest the "fruits" from his "re-engineering" tree, and the economy will grow stronger as co-operation dominates federal-provincial politics.
All this, Charest says, emanates from the "clear mandate for change" he received last April 14. The problem is that most Quebecers don't see it that way. First, as the old political-science adage goes, his government didn't get elected as much as the previous one got thrown out. If Charest did get one clear mandate, it was to not be Bernard Landry and for the Liberals to not be the Parti Québécois.
Second, mandate or no mandate, a majority of Quebecers are dissatisfied with his government. The changes have been too brisk and, for many, they stand to be costly because most people's disposable income won't keep up.
Day care and public transportation will cost more. Some workers face lower wages and poorer working conditions as the government eases sub-contracting rules. After a recent three-per-cent hike, Hydro-Québec President André Caillé now wants to increase electricity again by 2.1 to 4.7 per cent. The fact that Charest asked Hydro-Québec to put an additional $600 million into the state's coffer surely has something to do with it.
As for low-income Quebecers, Caillé in his usual "let them eat cake" attitude, plans to set up a special fund to help some of them cover part of their bloated hydro bills. Submitting people to charity administered by Hydro bureaucrats, now isn't that nice?
When you add rents that go up faster than ever before, all these increases will hit the middle class, especially families, like a bullet. As "re-engineering" costs pile up, so does the dissatisfaction of what even Stéphane Dion would say is a very clear majority. As for Charest's "exceptional charisma" - to quote André Pratte in his 1998 book L'énigme Charest - it has all but vanished in the process.
While chances are that support for the Liberals might not be quite as catastrophic as the 27 per cent in the latest SOM poll, Charest will need all the help he can get to keep part of his caucus from jumping off the Jacques Cartier bridge on their way back to Quebec City for the spring session.
So it comes as no surprise that PQ numbers are going up slowly even though its leader had been difficult to find lately. But before Landry's picture got put on on milk cartons, he resurfaced on Wednesday, promising a referendum in a future PQ mandate. If, of course - blah, blah, blah - he's sure of winning it. Lucky for him, Quebecers are too busy being upset at Charest to pay much attention to this.
But should the Bloc Québécois fare better than expected in the next federal election, and chances are it could, the PQ stands to benefit. As for the Action Démocratique, look for Mario Dumont to eventually pull another virage from his hat.
With Charest's unconditional federalist Liberals clearly standing on the right of the ideological spectrum, and Landry's PQ positioning itself - if only in rhetoric - as the sovereignist left, Dumont is sure to move the ADQ to where the Liberals used to be: at the very centre.
For this, he needs to do two things: stand up for the beleaguered middle class and go back to the nationalist stance that made him break away from the Liberals in the first place. If he succeeds, the next election might hold a few surprises.
But that's a very long three years from now. Judging by how many times the electorate changed its mind in the six months preceding the last election, anything can change between now and then.
Anything, it seems, except the money the government intends to keep taking from those who can least afford it.

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