Let me begin today by saying, just for once, something positive about Jean Charest:
If the premier intended his open letter to Quebec dailies this week only to keep people talking about Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois's Quebec citizenship bill for just one more day, then he succeeded magnificently.
The bill would promote French by, among other measures, denying newcomers who lack an "appropriate knowledge" of the language, even Canadian citizens moving here from other provinces, the right to run for provincial, municipal or school office.
The longer people talk about the bill in the current xenophobic climate, the more it might help the PQ recover some of the nationalist support it lost to Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec in the March 26 election. At least, that seems to be Marois's thinking. And what weakens the ADQ helps Charest's Liberals.
Okay, so much for the flowers. Now here comes the pot:
If giving Marois a boost wasn't Charest's sole objective, then his letter might have done him more harm than good.
An open letter from a head of government is an exceptional communication, usually sent in exceptional circumstances, such as during a crisis. The only form of communication that would be more dramatic is a televised address to the nation (or the province, or the country.)
And that's probably why Charest resorted to it. He might have felt pressure to exercise moral leadership in the debate over identity, which seems to be getting out of hand and damaging the province's reputation.
But Quebecers appeared some time ago to have tuned out Charest. When Lucien Bouchard's "lucids" published their manifesto two years ago picking up Charest's call for a rethinking of Quebec's interventionist model of government, it was a tacit recognition Quebecers were no longer listening to their premier.
So the only way Charest could get their attention now was to communicate with them through exceptional means. But the content of his communication did not meet the expectations raised by the form.
Instead of showing statesmanship, the main thrust of Charest's letter was to blame Marois and Dumont for contributing to the damage being done to Quebec's reputation by exploiting its internal divisions. It was an ordinary partisan attack such as is heard every day in politics, and Charest's text could very well have served as the notes for his speech to the next meeting of his party council.
Also, by invoking the memory of René Lévesque in criticizing Marois's bill on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Lévesque's death, Charest invited a comparison that would inevitably be unflattering to him. For unlike Charest, Lévesque was a calming presence who enjoyed not only Quebecers' affection but also their confidence for a period of several years.
And even before Marois and Dumont replied by counter-attacking, Charest's letter also invited an examination of his handling of what he suggests has reached the level of a crisis.
It was he who created the Bouchard-Taylor commission and mandated it to hold public consultations, which have provided the expressions of xenophobia that have caused the damage to Quebec's reputation he now deplores. Since then, he has wavered uncertainly between defending minorities and proposing new restrictions on their fundamental freedoms.
Some read his letter as differentiating Charest from his adversaries and staking out a firm position against intolerance. But Charest has appeared to take such a position before, at the Liberal general council meeting in mid-September
That was followed, however, by his announcement he would tip the present balance among rights in the Quebec charter to establish a hierarchy, favouring gender equality over religious freedom.
And only two days before the publication of his letter, one of his ministers announced legislation on voter identification showing more confidence in the honesty of prison inmates convicted of fraud - who can vote by mail - than Muslim women who wear face veils.
Charest's statement didn't help him
Premier's appeal for tolerance for minorities serves only to keep Marois's speak-French bill in the public eye