Jean Charest must feel a bit annoyed these days. This strange election campaign isn't unfolding quite the way Liberal strategists had planned.
A Léger Marketing poll at the end of the first week of campaigning showed that the premier might have some quick readjustments to make. For one thing, 30 per cent of respondents said that Charest's decision to have an election bothered them to the point that it would "influence their vote negatively."
A plausible explanation is that many voters aren't buying the premier's pretext to call an election 19 months after the last one. Voters simply cannot believe that Charest couldn't continue to govern, especially with an economic crisis looming.
This means that a sizeable part of the electorate is annoyed at the very holding of this election. So it's no surprise that the government's satisfaction rate also went down from 62 per cent to 55 per cent, whereas the Parti Québécois overtook the Liberal Party among francophone voters with 39 per cent to 34 per cent.
The Léger poll told the premier that his attempt to dictate one single theme for this election - the economy - isn't working either. While 28 per cent saw the economy as their top priority, 31 per cent said they preferred to hear more about "accessibility and quality" of health care.
For a party that went into the 2003 election making this issue its ultimate priority and promising voters access to a doctor 24/7, it's surprising to see Liberal strategists missing it this time around. Campaign slogans and war-room tactics are one thing. But in real life, real people deal with the real issue of long waiting lists and the impact of the family doctor shortage. By the way, a recent CBC documentary showed that this shortage - perhaps the No. 1 problem in the public system - also exists in most other provinces.
But here, it's an impressive 800,000 Quebecers who don't have a real, regular family doctor who knows them and their health history - I being one of those 800,00. If the premier has any problem seeing the relation between the economy and health-care, this problem is a perfect illustration of it.
Without a family doctor, patients have no choice but to clog up emergency rooms or walk-in day clinics. Those are costs to the system. Not having a regular follow-up by the same doctor means no prevention, which can lead tin turn o aggravated health problems later. The ensuing negative impact on public health also generates more costs down the line.
Another issue is the increased privatization of Quebec's health-care system. This so-called social-democratic province has the highest rate of private health-care spending in Canada - 30 per cent - and the lowest amount of public money spent per capita.
Still, although the Liberals have been in power for five years, Charest seems intent on blaming all of the system's woes on past PQ governments and Pauline Marois. But while Lucien Bouchard's slash-and-burn cuts did create the conditions for greater privatization, it was the former Liberal health minister Philippe Couillard, who left to work for a private health-care investment consortium, who allowed increased out-sourcing to for-profit clinics under Bill 33. Interestingly, the PQ is now the only major party promising to get rid of Bill 33.
Many voters are also weary of watching the game I call CHUM ping-pong. With Marois wanting to build it at 6000 St. Denis St., Mario Dumont in Outremont and Charest at the St. Luc site, this absurd saga surrounding the future French-language hospital is doing nothing to assuage voters' fears about the health-care system.
So it might be the economy, stupid. But health care and education are important, too. So watch for the next issue: Le Devoir's shocking front page story yesterday showing that only 53 per cent of those who attend francophone schools get their high-school diploma in time, compared with 72 per cent in anglophone schools. Who's minding that store?
This election isn't unfolding quite as Charest had wanted
The health-care issue seems to trump the economy in the minds of voters