On the heels of this week's resolutely sensible budget, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has called an election for March 26. It is a vote he is in a good position to contest, especially if Quebeckers remember that the Parti Québécois alternative promises another wrenching referendum. After a rocky start in April of 2003, Mr. Charest's government has finally adopted an appealing, middle-of-the-road approach, epitomized in the budget's balanced books, modest tax cuts and funds for social services and infrastructure.
Mr. Charest painted a clear choice, emphasizing his Liberal Party's federalist roots. "We believe that the Canadian entity is propitious for our cultural, economic and social development," he said yesterday, adding that "every election is crucial, but the next poll, the next election, involves the future of Quebec."
It was a pointed reference to his separatist opponent's greatest liability. PQ Leader André Boisclair promised in late 2005 to hold a third referendum "as soon as possible in the next mandate." For months, Mr. Boisclair has played down that vow, depicting himself as the representative of a new generation that will foster a modern economy. Then, last month, former PQ leader Bernard Landry accused him of insufficient zealotry for the party's "central objective, which is national independence." With that sniping, Mr. Landry reminded Quebeckers that a vote for the PQ means another divisive, economically hazardous vote on the province's future.
Premier Charest is not a beloved figure in Quebec. His first two years in office were stiff and stressful, marked by nasty clashes with organized labour. He has not managed to fulfill his promise to deliver huge personal income-tax cuts, although the Liberals claim they have come close.
But he has finally found his footing in Quebec's boisterous politics. Although he can be a superb campaigner, he has rarely brought pizzazz to the business of governing. Instead, as the budget shows, he offers solid stewardship. He has also had the courage to say he will raise Quebec's unrealistically low ceiling on university tuition. Brandishing Ottawa's declaration that the Québécois constitute a nation, he is building a coalition of federalists and mild Quebec nationalists. There have been growing pains, but he has evolved into a mature, sensible politician who has brought good government to his province.