Chances are Mario Dumont is away on a well deserved vacation. But, even when he's out of sight, his influence on the Liberal party and the Parti Quebecois is still formidable.
Liberal leader Jean Charest just announced the creation of three committees whose task will be to deliver the blueprint for a new platform in time for an election that could come as soon as next spring. As a bonus, Charest surely hopes they'll also keep Liberals busy enough to drive the thought of getting a new leader right out of their heads.
But it's clear that the real mandate of at least two of those committees - the ones on regional development and identity and relations with Canada - is to catch up with, if not plagiarize, the Action democratique du Quebec.
Liberals have fallen off the radar in predominantly francophone regions. Trying to make gains there is essential, even if it means photocopying the ADQ platform. The Liberals' survival is at stake.
But it's the committee on identity and relations with Canada that is the most obvious symptom of the disease Liberals and pequistes caught on election night - the ailment I call "ADQ envy." The problem for Charest is that on the blanket issue of identity, it's anybody's guess how he could ever beat Dumont at that game. Even if the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation, created to compete with Dumont, produces some constructive recommendations, it's almost a sure bet that Charest will get zero credit for it.
It's unfair that so many francophones continue to see the premier as an unconditional federalist without a nationalist bone in his body, but it's the political karma he's doomed to carry. So it's unlikely that Charest can come up with anything on "identity" that would change a perception that's so profoundly ingrained among most Quebecers.
Talking about his committees, Charest didn't shy away from borrowing directly from the ADQ, going as far as saying that he didn't fear talking about more "autonomy" for Quebec - Dumont's buzz word on that very issue.
Charest went even further, raising the possibility of a new, written constitution for Quebec. It's an idea, in its modern form, that should be credited to former PQ minister Jacques-Yvan Morin, a brilliant man who was always ahead of his time. But it is Dumont who revived it.
Last week, on the day after she officially became PQ leader, Pauline Marois also sounded like she was taking the ADQ's train to more "autonomy" for Quebec.
Before her crowning, Marois said she didn't want to discuss the date of a future referendum anymore. But the morning after, she spoke of governing for one, two or even three mandates, perhaps 10 years, without a referendum.
Taking a page directly from Dumont's book on autonomy, Marois said she'd demand more powers from Ottawa. On social democracy, she also sounded somewhat adequiste in an interview on Radio-Canada. She said questioning the universality of some public services is also now a possibility.
What all this means is that whichever party forms the next government in Quebec, federalist circles, including the business milieu, here and in Ottawa, have nothing to worry about. They have a win-win situation.
The PQ axed the referendum. The Liberals are always a safe bet, of course. But the ADQ, with its autonomist platform, is now a perfectly acceptable alternative in respect to working within the federation.
While Charest and the Liberals can rejoice at seeing the PQ losing its sovereignty mojo, the ADQ's unthreatening autonomist plank means that they're no longer the only game in town for influential fundraisers and potential star candidates.
So it's no coincidence that on the same day Charest announced his new committees, Dumont's right-hand man, Gilles Taillon, told reporters he was working on recruiting some big names in business, education and health to run as candidates in the next election.
If the Liberals remain stuck in third place among francophones this fall, this should be quite doable for the ADQ.
Dumont's influence is never on vacation
Charest and Marois are stealing pages from the ADQ leader's book