Jean Charest's mentor in politics, Brian Mulroney, had a favourite saying at election time: "Don't compare me to perfection, compare me to the alternative."
Premier Charest doesn't have to make the comparison. His opponent, Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair, invites it.
To the extent that the upcoming Quebec election will be about character -- and governing Quebec is all about character -- Boisclair begins the campaign at a significant disadvantage. He has never answered questions about his cocaine abuse while sitting at the Cabinet table of two PQ governments. When a radio host grilled him on the subject a few weeks ago, Boisclair dismissed the questions as insignificant. Such questions as who was his supplier, how much he paid, whether his provincial police drivers were aware and whether he was ever in rehab. Those questions, about a matter that is in the Criminal Code, may resurface in the campaign that began yesterday.
The tipping point for Boisclair may have been his role in the Brokeback Mountain video spoof of Stephen Harper and George W. Bush, which, apart from being in bad taste, confirmed the lack of maturity and judgment suggested by Charest.
Then, on a January trip to Paris, the French Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Royal endorsed Quebec sovereignty while briefly talking to reporters. Standing by her as she said this was Andre Boisclair. Quebecers don't like their leaders tugging their forelocks in front of the French. Charest replied that the future of Quebec would be determined in Quebec, by Quebecers, and by them alone.
(Asked on a subsequent visit with French President Jacques Chirac whether he had a position on the French election, a smiling Charest quipped, "non-interference and non-indifference," echoing the famous French formulation on Quebec.)
On his return from Paris, Boisclair was met with a bad poll, and a putative putsch orchestrated by his predecessor, Bernard Landry, who offered to succeed him. Landry, like de Gaulle, always a la reserve de la republique, gave a flurry of interviews from his home on the banks of the Richelieu River, his equivalent of de Gaulle's Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises retreat.
Fending off the coup, Boisclair promised to "pull up my socks and do better," even as he endured the worst coverage any PQ leader has ever received in the French language media. When he said last week he had "the knife between my teeth" for the campaign, Charest said, "I hope he doesn't hurt himself."
All of this has driven down the PQ's polling numbers. Though the PQ polled close to 50% when Boisclair became leader in November 2005, they had fallen all the way to 31% in a Leger poll last week, five points behind Charest and the Liberals (who spent most of their mandate in the 20s), and only 10 points ahead of Mario Dumont and his Action Democratique du Quebec.
It was Boisclair's slide, more than the gradual revival of the Premier's own fortunes, that prompted Charest to advance the election timetable from May to March. It also prompted his friend Stephen Harper to pull his $1.5-billion Eco Trust announcement out of the budget, and announce Quebec's $350-million share for Kyoto compliance last Monday as part of Charest's pre-writ rollout of good news, right in his hometown of Sherbrooke. There will be more in the March 19 federal budget on the fiscal imbalance, one week before the election.
This is intended to help Charest close the deal with Quebecers as a Premier who defends their interests and delivers for them in a federal-provincial context transformed in the last year from paternalism to partnership. The voters, especially women, have had quite enough of the constant chicanes between Ottawa and Quebec. And it was no coincidence that in the high-tech rollout of his 125 candidates at a Liberal meeting last Saturday, Charest was surrounded by 44 women candidates.
Boisclair's flameout has also driven votes to Dumont, whose polling numbers have languished in the low teens for most of the last five years. There are some longtime PQ voters who could simply never bring themselves to vote for the Liberals, and so Mario, who supported the Yes side in the 1995 referendum but doesn't want another referendum now, is a convenient place to park.
It is now conceivable, though still unlikely, that Dumont could actually end up in second place in this election. If Boisclair were to slip into the high 20s, and Dumont continued to grow to the mid-20s, he could actually win more seats than Boisclair because of a more concentrated rural vote.
We're not there yet, far from it. Boisclair could indeed pull up his socks. Expectations of him are now so low that he could win the leaders' debate, which will probably be held on March 12, just by showing up. The PQ might be able to generate a sympathy vote, and the Liberals could trip up from their triumphalism, which Quebecers hate.
So, Charest needs to be confident without looking cocky, and smiling and good humoured without ridiculing his opponents. He has been smiling a lot lately, meaning he has good numbers in his pocket.
One more thing you should know about Charest: He always shows up for the campaign. - L. Ian MacDonald is the editor of Policy Options, the magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.