Brian Mulroney, despite his legendary flair, might have been wrong when he advised political parties to take note that the environment has become the electorate's No. 1 priority.
This is not so - at least in Quebec, where, once again, the election campaign is centred on health care. Last week, a CROP poll showed that the environment - as well as education - was the priority of no more than 10 per cent of Quebeckers, while 51 per cent were mostly preoccupied with health. And 82 per cent thought that access to care is "the same" or "worse" than four years ago.
The emphasis on health was predictable. The largest group of voters are baby boomers, who are starting to worry about their own health, not to mention dealing with their aging parents' various illnesses. While only families with relatively young kids feel directly concerned by education issues, health is something that touches everyone in their daily life.
People pay lip service to environmental issues because they're in the air, but when push comes to shove (i.e. at election time), they are understandably much more sensitive to the quality of their own lives than to the fate of the polar bears.
In any case, this emphasis on health-care issues spells bad news for Premier Jean Charest, because the Liberals solemnly promised, four years ago, to cure the ills of the health-care system.
During the 2003 campaign, Mr. Charest went so far as saying that, if elected, he wanted his government to be judged on its record in managing the health-care services. Well, now the time has come for Quebeckers to judge his record, and the verdict is not good. Even Liberal voters are dissatisfied: 48 per cent believe nothing has changed, and 20 per cent that things are worse than they were.
Actually, the Charest government hasn't done worse than its predecessors. It raised the number of admissions in the province's medical schools (there is an acute shortage of active physicians in Quebec). It also took extraordinary measures to accelerate procedures in the three key areas where waiting times for surgery were agonizingly long - cataracts and knee and hip replacements - but only because the Supreme Court ordered it to do so.
More generally, there is widespread feeling in Quebec that the Charest government didn't do anything really worth remembering during its four years in office. What is certain is that it didn't fulfill any of its major promises.
There has been no tax relief for the middle class, which bears the brunt of the fiscal burden, and the province's taxpayers are still, as Mr. Charest was angrily claiming four year ago, "the most taxed citizens in North America." There has been no substantial reduction in the size of the state, as the Liberals promised, even though Quebec's bureaucracy is by far the largest and most costly in Canada. Reform of the school curriculum failed miserably, and the universities are in dire straits, in part because the Charest government refused to raise tuition fees for fear of a student backlash (even though the fees are ridiculously low). The Liberals now lamely promise to raise the fees by an almost insignificant amount if they're re-elected.
Considering that Mr. Charest didn't dare make real changes during the four years he enjoyed a majority, one wonders what he would do if he were stuck with a minority government - a likely possibility, since the Liberals' lead over the two other parties is very slim.
Of course, Stephen Harper has shown that even a minority government can take bold stands, but then he is a strong leader, while Mr. Charest is not. As if to reinforce this image of aloofness, the Premier is counting on the Harper government's budget today to give some momentum to his campaign.