Liberals' identity crisis

Charest wants his party to become more nationalist, but the rank and file is balking

Charest, la peur du "nous": esquive et dérive populiste

Apparently, the identity crisis identified by the Bouchard-Taylor commission among old-stock French-Canadians who have abandoned their religion isn't the only one in Quebec.

At the Quebec Liberal Party's general council meeting on the weekend, the identification badges issued to participants hung from ribbon lanyards coloured nationalist blue instead of Canadian (and traditional Liberal) red.

And blue was the dominant colour of the backdrop against which Premier Jean Charest stood at his closing news conference, with only a bit of dark red in the lower left corner, where it would be invisible to the television cameras on Charest.
This was the first meeting of the governing council of the Party Formerly Known as "les Rouges" since the general election last March, in which the Liberals lost francophone votes - and nearly power - to Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec.
And it was supposed to mark the beginning of a change of direction for the party toward a more nationalist position, in response to the revival of ethnic or "identity" nationalism associated with the rise of the ADQ.

The new position would be contained in a preliminary report to be submitted to the meeting by a policy task force on identity, one of three such groups whose creation was announced by Charest in July (a fourth has since been added).
Charest had indicated the direction he wanted the identity task force to take in his address at the opening of the new legislature in May, lecturing immigrants on their obligations to Quebec and implying francophones needed protection against minorities.

It's not the first time the Liberals under Charest have responded to a threat from the ADQ by blurring the distinctions between the parties. After an apparent breakthrough by Dumont's right-of-centre party before the 2003 general election, the Liberals adopted a watered-down version of the ADQ's fiscal conservatism platform, on which they won the election.

The task force delivered the kind of report Charest had apparently wanted, calling for measures to strengthen the French language and Quebec as a nation.

But this time, the party balked at following where its leader apparently wanted to go. In a discussion of the report, delegates who spoke were overwhelmingly critical of it, saying it was not federalist enough. Members of ethnic minorities, who took an unusually prominent part in the discussion, expressed concern that Quebecers are being divided between "us" and "them."

Charest had apparently anticipated such a reaction, and was already in retreat. By the time of the Liberal youth convention in mid-August, only six weeks after announcing the creation of the task forces, he was sharpening the distinction between an inclusive Liberal Party and its divisive adversaries, especially the ADQ.
He did so again on the weekend in his opening speech at the council meeting, the evening before the presentation of the identity report. And in his closing speech, he emphasized the economy, which has long been the Liberals' strongest issue (though the economy's recent relative strength has not helped their popularity).

Charest is in a position similar to that in which Parti Québécois leaders have often found themselves on the question of sovereignty: caught between the conflicting desires of most of the electorate and of his party base.

Facing a leadership confidence vote next March, he has apparently made it his immediate priority to please a party of unconditional federalists and minorities (the latter representing about 40 per cent of Liberal support in the polls).
On the weekend, Charest moved to strengthen ties with traditional Liberals by announcing the return to the party of two prominent figures from Robert Bourassa's day, John Parisella and Michel Bissonnette, as special advisers.
But as far as the general electorate is concerned, Charest is so unpopular that he is probably incapable of exercising the moral leadership on the identity question for which one might look to another premier.


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