Quebec Premier Jean Charest put on a confident face yesterday as he launched Quebec's March 26 election campaign. But his Liberal party faces a real battle, even with powerful friends such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper hovering in the wings with political and financial support.
Harper has already given Quebec $350 million for environmental initiatives and the federal budget on March 19, a week before Quebecers vote, is expected to provide more cash for that heavily indebted province.
But Harper's support will carry Charest only so far. The Quebec Liberal leader needs to wage a powerful campaign, as well, driving home the stark choices voters face in this crucial election, which will have political implications far beyond the province's borders.
The Quebec Liberals go into what promises to be a bitter election with a slight lead in some polls. But Charest is the least popular of the three major party leaders. He has been called a "liar" by his foes for not delivering on the $1 billion-a-year income tax cut he promised in the 2003 election. And voter dissatisfaction is dangerously high.
Ominously for Charest, many Quebecers are in the mood for a change after his lacklustre first mandate, and his francophone support is soft. The Liberals now hold 72 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly, to the Parti Quebecois's 45 and the Action democratique du Quebec's 5. There is one independent and two vacancies. As well, two small parties, the sovereignist Quebec Solidaire and the Greens, are nibbling at the bigger parties. Analysts speculate that a rare minority government may result.
Yet for all that, Charest is the best choice for Quebec, and for Canada.
Rookie PQ Leader Andre Boisclair promises what few Quebecers, or other Canadians, are anxious for: another referendum on independence. Moreover, his maturity and judgment are suspect, in part because of his past cocaine use. ADQ Leader Mario Dumont, meanwhile, is a sometimes federalist with a conservative agenda. He also sees the small-town backlash against immigrants as a "cri du coeur" rather than a disgrace.
While Charest, like other Quebec leaders, embraces the notion that Quebec is a nation, his Quebec at least is firmly located in the Canadian context. Unlike his chief rivals, Charest has proved himself a principled federalist who has no trouble saying: "I'm a Canadian. And I'm proud of it. And I see no contradiction between being a Quebecer and a Canadian." He also regards Quebec's cultural diversity as something to be cherished.
Charest's platform, outlined Tuesday in his balanced $60 billion budget, is a credible mix of tax cuts and social spending that addresses Quebecers' major concerns, within the constraints of a heavy $122 billion debt.
The Liberals will cut income taxes by $250 million a year to bring taxes in line with the rest of the country. They will invest $2 billion immediately in health and education to ensure that Quebecers will not have to wait more than six months for surgery, to create 20,000 new child-care spaces and to refinance colleges and universities, partly through a controversial $500 increase in tuition. They hope to spur manufacturing jobs by ending the tax on capital for businesses that reinvest.
While Charest's rivals slam his stewardship, it is hard to see how Boisclair's push for another referendum can improve people's lives. And Dumont's populist/conservative agenda is fraught with risk. He would declare Quebec an "autonomous state," pay down the debt without raising taxes, which implies cutting services, and further privatize health care.
Quebecers who find Charest wanting must ponder the alternatives.