Watching the Liberals in freefall


April 30, 2004
Poll numbers just keep getting worse for Premier Jean Charest. If this continues, there will be more people in Quebec who believe Elvis is still alive than those who are satisfied with his government.
According to the latest CROP poll published yesterday in La Presse, a staggering 66 per cent of respondents said they are dissatisfied with the government's performance, including 41 per cent who are "very dissatisfied." Only five per cent of voters are undecided.
As a consolation price, 36 per cent of Quebecers would vote Liberal - a three-point gain since the previous CROP poll. Though it suffered a four-point loss, the Parti Quebecois gets the support of 41 per cent of voters while 47 per cent support sovereignty.
With the PQ still ahead among francophones, Charest's Liberals would lose the election if one were held. But Charest can count his blessings: the election is at least three years away.
Liberal numbers are so bad that even in traditionally Liberal and federalist circles, few dare to defend the party publicly. As for Paul Martin's Liberals, the last thing they need going into a probable spring election is to be tied to the growing unpopular Quebec Liberals.
One lone voice did speak up though. This week, former chief of staff to Robert Bourassa, John Parisella, made a chivalrous attempt in The Gazette and La Presse to put on a brave face. In an article finding no fault with Charest's governance, he advised the premier to keep on trucking with the "will to act, determination and force of character." Oy vey.
Charest's determination, coupled with a contradictory ambiguity about what it is precisely he intends to do, is what got him in this mess in the first place. It's no surprise the premier continues to face an uphill battle when it comes to public opinion.
His intentions to re-engineer the state and open more public services to the private sector haven't flown, so far. Charest's plans have remained murky and hesitant at best, but next week he'll be submitted to his first reality test. Treasury Board President Monique-Jerome Forget will finally unveil in detail what this mysterious re-engineering beast will actually do.
Once the spin doctors finish trying to convince Quebecers re-engineering will either be heavenly for our economy or the final, apocalyptic decapitation of the Quebec model, the polls will tell whether or not Charest will continue to sink or start swimming.
But even if the bark of the re-engineering beast ends up being greater than its bite, Charest will continue to be dogged by the dissatisfaction growing within his own ranks. This week, Justice Minister Marc Bellemare resigned, feeling let down by his leader and politics in general.
Radio-Canada also reported a number of Liberal MNAs and ministers are troubled by Charest's "ghost cabinet:": powerful and influential men from the private sector who advise Charest.
If truth be told, most premiers do the same. Many past premiers, including the previous one, tended to rely more on the advice they got from outside influential sources than from their own staff or ministers. One such outside source for Charest is Marcel Cote, president of SECOR, the very Liberal-friendly firm, who also was one of Bourassa's favourite kingpins.
Liberals also complain that Charest is isolating himself, keeping to a small circle of "inities." Again, that's like most premiers. Charest's problem is not isolation - it's the type of limited company he keeps.
Charest's real problem might be that SECOR's Cote is the exception, not the rule. Most of the premier's outside advisers seem to be of the true-blue conservative persuasion without hardly any Liberal red. This "foreign" influence is what many Liberals are starting to identify as one of the main sources of the government's woes.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but too many strangers within one party make for bad politics. Just ask Parti Quebecois MNAs who spent five years watching Lucien Bouchard consult federalists, conservative or liberal, more readily than he would any pequiste or sovereignist.
Tomorrow, Charest will get a small break as he heads for a five-day official visit to France. Surely, it's a coincidence that he'll be far, far away on May 1, which marks workers' day worldwide.
He'll be missing all those wonderful demonstrations that continue to be a sure-fire sign of the dissatisfaction that won't go away.
Surely, an official dinner with the French president and a nice stroll down the Champs Elysees will prove more restful than hearing the sound of the bullhorns at tomorrow's marches.

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