Charest's winter of discontent


January 28, 2005 Friday
This is the winter of Jean Charest's discontent. His government might not be the "worst in contemporary history," as Bernard Landry contends, but it is a government in crisis.
The crisis is both external and internal. From without, there is an obvious breach of trust between the government and the population. For more than a year, the level of dissatisfaction toward Charest's team has remained surprisingly high for a government barely into its first mandate.
From within, this week's mounting rumours about a cabinet shuffle - launched by the premier's own musings - pointed to a number of high-profile ministers whose repeated fumblings would make Inspector Clouseau seem competent in comparison.
But two ministers keep managing to out-fumble their colleagues. On the recent handling of the funding of some private Jewish schools, Education Minister Pierre Reid displayed, once again, that he's not meant for the job.
As for Public Security Minister Jacques Chagnon, he has turned into a veritable walking disaster. Palestinians and Ukrainians have managed to hold historic elections, yet the one in Kanesatake keeps being delayed.
On private-school funding, Chagnon went behind the back of the Treasury Board president to approve the required $10 million. Chagnon has proved to be a catastrophic minister.
There's more. The government's crisis has spilled over into the caucus. Various leaks to the media on bad decisions by the premier's office are a sure sign some backbenchers are now speaking off the record to reporters to embarrass their leader and his entourage.
Just like Landry, whose caucus meeting proceedings were being leaked almost verbatim last fall, Charest can now read parts of his secret caucus and cabinet meetings in his morning papers.
In this surreal spectacle, even the notoriously camera-shy former premier Daniel Johnson was forced to defend his reputation as the co-author of a report on the never-ending CHUM superhospital saga; where his firm was accused of racking up too much contract money.
Ah, yes, the CHUM, where no decision has been made and where powerful business lobbies circle the premier's office like vultures to make sure it gets built in Outremont, where the private sector could make a killing.
Which reminds us of the health-care system that keeps decaying, notwithstanding Charest's electoral promise he'd fix what the PQ government had broken.
Even longtime Liberals are growing tired of watching ministers running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Some Liberal insiders are starting to point at Charest's chief of staff, Stephane Bertrand, who is accused of being incompetent and authoritarian. Last time such a thing happened was in November 2002. Landry's chief of staff was sacrificed to appease the same kind of rumblings by some powerful ministers against Landry's inner circle.
Anyone who has been at the top of the government pyramid knows that blaming the premier's chief-of-staff is usually the last stop before fingers start pointing at the premier himself.
That is why Charest was wise not to hit the panic button this week and not proceed with a cabinet shuffle that would have punished those, like Chagnon and Reid, who obediently and loyally carried out some of his worst decisions.
Before Charest shuffles his cabinet, which he'll surely do later this spring, he would be wise to reshape his own governance and leadership. Some ministers might suffer from the Peter principle, but this government's main problem is at its very top.
In their book Ambitions liberales et ecueils politiques, political scientists Gerard Boismenu, Pascale Dufour and Denis Saint-Martin make this diagnosis about the Charest government: "It appears to display a marked ignorance of the conditions in which political relations are managed in Quebec." And no one displays this more than Charest.
They conclude the Charest government seems unaware this is not a province like any other and that different choices must sometimes be made because this a government "vested with a national mission," not just a provincial one.
Thus, the strong opposition from many quarters of Quebec against Charest's attempts to hand over to the private sector what many see as vital public services that allow Quebecers to keep a strong state apparatus, whether it stays within Canada or not.
Still, Charest has at least two years left to take a much-needed crash course in Quebec governance 101.
If he doesn't, he'll have all the time in the world after the next election to take an entire degree on the subject.

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