Charest's letter begins battle of wills


Friday, October 17, 2003
This week, Premier Jean Charest marked the first six months of his Liberal government by gracing the pages of newspapers with an open letter to Quebecers. As far as anniversaries go, a nice card and some flowers would have done just fine.
But a letter it was. In it, the premier ditches his "re-engineering" buzzword for kinder, gentler terms like "modernizing," "renovating" and "redefining" the government. He pooh-poohs the "corporatist" interest groups and unions who denounce his plans and vows cutting budgets and contracting out public services to the private sector won't hurt a bit.
But in a world where the medium is often the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the way in which Charest chose to make his point is no coincidence. A letter allows him to speak directly to the population without resorting to a more dramatic television address or submitting to the media filter inherent in a press conference.
Coming from the old Mulroney school of message control and not wanting to develop the type of media paranoia Bernard Landry displays in the recent documentary À hauteur d'homme, Charest appears to want to choose his medium as much as the message he wants to convey.
More important, Charest's move shows he worries more than he lets on about the mounting opposition to his vision from pressure groups and within his own caucus. As he repeats his mantra of "Quebecers chose change on April 14, "internal polls must surely tell him this re-engineering thing will be no easy sell. Even former Liberal leader Claude Ryan said recently in an interview in Le Devoir "we must remind the government of its responsibilities pertaining to social justice and a just equality of chances that favours growth in all classes of society."
So Charest's letter was as much a warning to shaky Liberals as it was to unions and Quebecers in general he is determined to carry on his re-engineering operation. Even though Charest campaigned more to the centre of the ideological spectrum, he obviously intends to govern to the right.
Many, especially union and social leaders, have been shocked and outraged by the clarity of the line Charest has just drawn in the sand. But did he really have any choice? After all, if the medium is the message, more often than none, the messenger is even more so. And when it comes to major budget cuts, Charest lacks the kind of massive popularity and charisma Lucien Bouchard relied on in 1996 to slash and burn his way to his zero-deficit objective.
Although Bouchard was planning as much of a re-engineering of the state as Charest, his caucus was willing to follow him blindly into the fire. He also managed to rally most social, political, union and financial leaders in the high mass he called his socio-economic summit. Though he had no electoral mandate to cut public services to attain a zero-deficit and then proceed to reduce income taxes by the billions the same way Charest plans to do, he used his Messiah-like status of the time to garner the approval of most who attended the summit.
Just like Charest today, Bouchard equated cuts with improving services. He even kept repeating with a straight face the virage ambulatoire would save our health-care system. But contrary to Charest, many were willing to believe such outrageous statements as long as they came from Bouchard.
Another thing Bouchard had Charest doesn't was his close relationship with major union leaders. Even though he was on a first-name basis with powerful businesspeople like Laurent Beaudoin, Jean Coutu or André Bérard, he also had most labour leaders eating out of his hand, especially Gérald Larose, then president of the CSN and a very close friend since the days of the Bélanger-Campeau commission. With enemies" like that, who needed friends?
But Charest will have no such luck. Businessmen might support him as much as they did Bouchard, but he won't get the same kind of carte blanche from labour and social activists, including from the many sovereignists who believed his predecessor when he said, also with a straight face, he was doing it all for the good of the cause.
Because Charest knows this well enough, we better get used to receiving more of these open letters. This will be a long battle of wills as the premier will continue to try to sell Quebecers on taking Bouchard's budget-cutting agenda one step farther by letting the private sector in more and more.

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