Charest needs the new, gentler Pierre Paradis


Friday, November 28, 2003
This week, Jean Charest got his Christmas gift early. After he tried so hard to sideline Pierre Paradis by leaving him out of his cabinet, the veteran Liberal made a surprise return to the National Assembly. The premier now gets to find out if his boomerang MNA plans to be naughty or nice.
Chances are he'll be nice. For one thing, Paradis is no backbencher in his own mind. As he racked up high responsibilities under Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson, and even once tried for the leadership, he developed an allergy to the dust that piles up on the benches lined up at the back of the Assembly.
Even in opposition, he sat in the front row, next to Charest, as the formidable house leader of the opposition. If he wants to be named minister any time in the new year, playing ''nice'' will be the price he will gladly play.
Paradis is also smart enough to understand any brand new premier, even one who implements a controversial agenda, is safe in his seat as the leader of both his party and the government. No new premier is ever a lame duck that can be shot down by even the most ambitious of rivals.
If Paradis tries in any way to undermine Charest in the next few months, it is his own skin that will be dangling from the Bunker's windows, not Charest's.
For Charest, Paradis's return might not be what he wants. But it might be what he needs at a time when he finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side, the Conseil du Patronat is turning into a political liability for Charest. The right-wing employers' lobby applauds so loudly at his every move it reinforces the premier's image as a diehard conservative - the kind of image that won't pay come next election day.
On the other side, many of his own caucus members are growing anxious over the mounting anger of unions, community groups and day-care centres, which plan massive demonstrations and walkouts. To calm his queasy MNAs and play down the embarrassing support of employers, Charest might soon need Paradis, newly self-appointed Liberal voice for the downtrodden.
Since his ousting, Paradis underwent a stunning metamorphosis. He went from right-wing positions to painting himself as the new Claude Ryan - the ultimate guardian of ''Liberal values.'' It might be a hard sell for a man who's remembered as the minister responsible for the Boubou-macoutes - the welfare police who went around harassing the poor. But if some people can be made to believe François Legault has become a hard-line separatist, anything is possible.
Since politics is often about interests, self-interest in some cases, that kind of discourse might prove profitable for both Charest and Paradis. The premier desperately needs a progressive voice, any voice, to come from within his government and to speak up on its behalf.
At a time when Charest is coming under attack for his attempts to re-engineer the state, his government also needs to project an image of strength and unity. And how better to foster unity, even the begrudging kind, than by welcoming back a 23-year veteran and, eventually, bringing him back to cabinet?
Charest could kill two birds with one stone if he makes Paradis a minister within the next few months. He would further strengthen party unity and quiet Paradis even more by submitting him to the obligation of cabinet solidarity. That's where his stinging criticisms would, by the wave of the cabinet's magic wand, turn into ''constructive contributions.''
As for Paradis, even though chances are he'll be loyal as long as Charest's leadership is solid, his longtime ambition to become leader might resurface the day his boss falters. At a fit and lean 52, Paradis has plenty of time to prepare for Charest's eventual departure, whether it comes at the end of one or two terms in government.
By choosing to return to the Liberal ''family'' after a few months refining his stunning ideological virage, Paradis shows he's willing to prepare for that moment not by stabbing his leader in the back, but by taking a progressive stance that will distinguish him from the more conservative Charest. And he can play that fiddle like a pro without having to go as far as being disloyal.
Knowing he sits firmly in the premier's saddle, Charest can afford to use Paradis's new discourse for his own purpose and interests. Knowing a leadership convention will inevitably take place four or eight years down the road, Paradis can afford to be nice and loyal and still try to establish himself as the voice of the increasingly anxious small-l liberal wing of his party.

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