Liberals are stuck with Charest

Time of instability the wrong moment to turf leader

Climat politique au Québec

Quebecers, for whatever reason, have never warmed to Jean Charest as a leader during his five years in opposition and four years in government. But the Quebec Premier is not one to admit failure easily, and yesterday he insisted he is staying put despite recent opinion polls suggesting he is pulling down his Liberal party.
"I still intend to be around for the next election. That has not changed," Mr. Charest told a news conference announcing his party's plan to reconnect with Quebecers through three touring committees.
The March 26 election produced two losers and a winner. Mario Dumont's Action Democratique du Quebec was the victor, going from five to 41 seats and vaulting to official opposition status.
The Liberals saw their majority evaporate, falling from 72 seats to 48, and the Parti Quebecois fell to third-party status with 36 seats.
The PQ swiftly showed leader Andre Boisclair the door and replaced him last week with Pauline Marois, who is talking down another sovereignty referendum and proposing that the social-democratic party move to the centre.
The Liberals' response to their own crisis -- which includes a collapse of support among francophone voters -- came yesterday in the form of three new committees.
Their daunting task is to make the Liberals more relevant to Quebecers, in particular those living outside Montreal.
The committees will address the issues of the environment, regional development and Quebec "identity."
The latter is a response to a touchy debate over the accommodation of religious minorities in Quebec society.
It is an issue that Mr. Dumont exploited during the last campaign, suggesting that Quebec
had gone overboard in its acceptance of minority religious customs at the expense of the Quebecois majority.
Mr. Charest said yesterday that Quebec is not alone in wrestling with issues of identity, noting that similar debates are ongoing in France and other parts of Europe.
The identity committee will also study Quebec's relationship with the rest of Canada, and Mr. Charest said his government will press Ottawa for added powers.
"Nothing is static in this world. It's not true that the status quo is an option," he said.
"We have provided proof in the last four years that you do not need to change the Canadian Constitution to change our relationship with the rest of Canada, to defend the interests of Quebec, and to give ourselves even more powers."
In response to a question, Mr. Charest said he would not rule out the possibility that the next Liberal platform may propose a Quebec constitution grouping together such fundamental laws as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Bill 101, the language law.
Both the ADQ and the PQ have proposed that Quebec draft its own constitution.
Mr. Charest's past attempts to play the nationalist card have not brought much success.
A CROP poll published last week in La Presse gave the Liberals the support of just 19% of francophone voters, well behind the ADQ at 32% and the PQ at 34%.
Overall, the three parties were in a virtual tie, but the Liberals need to improve their fortunes outside Montreal if they hope to regain their majority.
The poll had harsh news for Mr. Charest.
He was identified by just 21% of respondents as the best choice for premier, behind Ms. Marois at 32% and Mr. Dumont at 31%.
And when people were asked seven questions about the leaders ranging from who was best-suited to solve the health-care crisis to who would make the best dinner companion, Mr. Charest finished last almost every time. (Mr. Dumont was invariably the first choice.)
After surviving a June budget vote thanks to a last-minute deal with the Parti Quebecois, Mr. Charest's minority government is not given much hope of surviving beyond next spring.
That fact, and not his own popularity, may prove his greatest advantage when he faces a leadership review at a Liberal convention early next March. The convention will be held around the time budgets are usually tabled.
Even if they wanted to, Liberal members would not be inclined to turf their leader at a time of such instability for the minority government.

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