Charest, Martin victims of winds of change


Friday, April 16, 2004
In politics, the promise of change has a magical ring to it. For most products - that includes parties and leaders - the label "new and improved" usually sells. But for Paul Martin and Jean Charest, the word change has turned into a nightmare.
Ironically, these two leaders, who promised sweeping changes on everything, have delivered precious little. Joined at the hip by killer polls, their support is plummeting - Martin for failing to change anything and Charest for trying to change too much.
In Martin's case, the ultimate irony is that it was his predecessor and arch enemy, Jean Chretien, who made some real changes to federal politics just before he left. By adopting new, more-ethical rules on the financing of political parties and by standing up to President George W. Bush on Iraq, Chretien made the kind of changes Martin probably never would have had the courage, or the beliefs, to impose.
So far, Martin has failed to deliver the same kind of deep changes. Since he became prime minister, Martin chose instead to play old-style politics: refusing any responsibility in the sponsorship scandal, throwing out Chretienites with the arrogance and vengefulness usually found in old, tired politicians, touring frantically in the remotest of places while denying this has anything to do with the next election, and so on.
If Martin continues to make such an anachronistic spectacle of himself, even Conservative leader Stephen Harper will start to look fresh in comparison. Give him enough time and Harper will represent change. And time could be exactly what Martin gives him if he postpones the election. But if he does, he'll also have to withstand the ugly fallout that's sure to come from the publication of Sheila Copps's tell-all book in September.
No wonder Martin wants to meet with the Dalai Lama, surely hoping for some wise advice and solace. It seems to me he should also schedule a much-needed visit to the famous sanctuary of St. Jude in Montreal, the patron-saint of desperate causes.
So while Martin suffers for failing to bring on any real change, Charest gets punished for wanting to bring in too much of it. Charest's own ultimate irony is that for all his re-engineering rhetoric, he has actually changed very little in the governance of Quebec.
Other than the modification of Article 45 of the Labour Code which allows for more contracting out of public services and his reported intention of reducing the job security of government employees, Charest falls desperately short of his ambition to turn the page on the Quiet Revolution.
He did increase the price of day care to $7 a day, but even the previous Parti Quebecois government knew it would have had to do the same eventually. Given how obedient our premiers have become to Andre Caille, president of Hydro-Quebec, any PQ premier would have been just as tempted to hand him the increases in rates he demanded and received recently.
Charest's Finance Minister, Yves Seguin, didn't rock the boat much, either, even managing to deliver somewhat of a socially progressive budget that included some imaginative anti-poverty measures, the return of family allowances and a sizeable investment in social housing. Even renowned social activist Francoise David applauded these measures.
In health care, as hard as Charest tries to push for more privatization, even in the sensitive area of hospital administration, he had to face the wrath of his health minister, Philippe Couillard, who rushed to deny any such change would be made under his direction.
As for the two superhospitals, you can bet even though Charest tried to sideline his minister by handing this crucial file to Brian Mulroney and Daniel Johnson - two old, ideologically aligned friends - Couillard will fight to keep the tightest grip possible on la suite des choses.
If this continues, Charest stands to deliver only a fraction of the changes he advocated. One reason might be bad polls. But another, which partly explains the polls, is that many Quebecers, for all their talk of wanting to boot the behinds of civil servants, resist changes that can weaken the state too much.
When you add to this a level of 40-per-cent unionization and the pro-PQ component that is also part of the unions' resistance to Charest, you end up with a mix that could bring Charest to retreat from a number of changes he intended to implement.
Still, communications are also a problem for Charest. So here's one change he should make pronto: Bring back special adviser Ronald Poupart, his highly competent, Bourassa-style former chief of staff who's just been ousted from the bunker. And ditch Monique Jerome-Forget, the most disastrous president of the Treasury Board in decades.
That could help the premier delay his much-needed visit to the St. Jude sanctuary.

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