The two faces of Quebec Premier Jean Charest

If re-elected, which Charest will it be: the fiscal reformer, or the solid administrator?

Élection Québec - 8 décembre 2008

Who knew that an ad for certified management accountants could be funny?
There's one currently running on French-language television (, in which a pair of corporate snake-oil salesmen make a pitch to a skeptical executive.
The strategy consists entirely of some of the recent clichés peddled as miracle cures for business ailments: "Reorganization, restructuring ... synergy and convergence ... "

After this, the ad suggests the executive needs the advice of what is described (unfortunately, considering some of the business news in recent years) as a "creative accountant."
One of the buzzwords mocked in the ad might have a vaguely familiar ring even to Quebecers who have never sat through a speech at a chamber of commerce luncheon.
It's "re-engineering," which was Premier Jean Charest's term for what he intended to do to the interventionist Quebec model of government after he came to power in 2003. He wanted to reduce the role, the size and the cost of government.
Charest's first term was characterized by confrontation and division, as he stubbornly pushing ahead with not only his reform but also such decisions as the partial sale of the Mont Orford provincial park, in the face of strong public resistance.
As a result, in last year's election he almost became the first Quebec premier in 37 years not to lead his party to a second term in power. As it was, he survived as the head of only the first minority government in the province since 1878.
Since then, he appears to have been transformed. In his second term, the radical reformer has become a conventional administrator, and the personal aggressiveness he often displayed has given way to a conciliatory and relaxed attitude.
This is partly attributable to the new advisers he brought in a year ago, graduates of the managerial school of former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, who believed that the only waves he should make were in the pool during his daily recreational swim.
But some people believe that the change in Charest is due mainly to the discipline imposed on him by his minority government's need to compromise to survive.
They have seen flashes of the former angry, occasionally even slightly wild-eyed Charest re-emerging in his response to the imposition by the opposition parties of a new president of the National Assembly.
And they suspect that if he wins another majority in the election he is expected to call next week, the Dr. Jekyll of his second term will revert to the Mr. Hyde of the first.
It would not be surprising if the opposition parties, especially the left-of-centre Parti Québécois, try to use this as an argument in favour of denying him a majority, similar to the accusations against Stephen Harper that he has a hidden agenda.
If Charest does intend to revive his "re-engineering" plans if he wins a majority, so far he has concealed it. In the 2003 election, he made no secret of his plans, which were contained in the Liberal platform adopted six months earlier and posted on the party's website. So afterward, he could and did claim to have a mandate for his plans.

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