Polls hold good news for Charest, but he must be careful

Boisclair's poor performance, Bloc's decline contribute to the provincial Liberal surge

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 5, 2006

After two years in the dumps, Jean Charest has rebounded in the polls to the point where he might be getting ahead of himself in terms of the runup to an election in the spring of next year.

A Leger marketing poll at the end of June put the Quebec Liberals at 37 per cent, the Parti Quebecois at 33 per cent, Action Democratique du Quebec at 17 per cent, and Quebec Solidaire at six per cent. Interestingly, the poll was taken from June 22 to 25 - over the St. Jean Baptiste weekend, when nationalist sentiment normally runs high.

An earlier CROP poll, June 12-25, had the PQ ahead at 35 per cent, the Liberals at 32 per cent, the ADQ at 16 per cent and Quebec Solidaire at seven per cent.

The discrepancy between the two polls is within the margin of error, and can be attributed to the different sampling periods. When CROP was in the field, Charest was using closure to ram through the Mount Orford Park privatization bill at the end of the legislative session. Leger was polling at the end of a string of good-news announcements, including an agreement on pay equity.

Neither poll brings any good tidings for Andre Boisclair and the PQ. Far from getting a bounce from his election to the leadership last November, the PQ has slid about 15 points in the polls since. Boisclair continues to be dogged by character issues, his party remains torn over the sovereignty issue, and the famous PQ machine is in a bad state of disrepair. The PQ might also have taken a collateral hit in what appears to be the decline of the Bloc Quebecois from a party polling in the mid- to high-40s to one now settling into the mid- to high-30s, basically tied with the Conservatives, and trailing them significantly off the island of Montreal.

Boisclair's immediate concern should be the seven per cent polled by Quebec Solidaire, a sovereignist and leftist movement that didn't even exist a year ago. Every one of its votes comes straight out of Boisclair's back pocket, an outright gift to Charest in terms of vote splitting.

But on a timeline to next spring, Charest also needs to be careful about peaking too soon. The Leger poll has rekindled speculation of a fall election, only 31/2 years since the last one. Charest would need a pretext to go early. How about he needs a mandate from the voters to negotiate a fiscal imbalance deal with Stephen Harper?

The last first-term Liberal premier to call an election six months ahead of the four-year norm was Robert Bourassa in 1973, when he won the biggest majority in Quebec history. He was anxious to take advantage of a strong economy, and wanted to get the election over before consumers felt the shock from OPEC tripling the price of oil.

In today's $70 a barrel world of oil, Quebecers are getting used to gasoline prices north of $1 a litre. The Quebec unemployment rate, while nearly two points above the national average, is the lowest it's been since 1975. That might be reason enough for Charest to consider going early.

But even as Charest's polling numbers rise, there are cautionary numbers in CROP's measurement of his approval rating. Fully 66 per cent of respondents were rather or somewhat dissatisfied with the Charest government's performance. Anytime dissatisfaction rises above 60 per cent, it can translate into time- for-a-change on voting day.

So the improvement in Charest's fortunes can be attributed in part to Boisclair's ineffectual performance, and no campaign team likes to make an argument for an election based on a weak opponent. But the Liberals also know that for all his stumbles in office, Charest is a proven campaigner and a strong debater.

And on the big files, from the health-care accord in 2004 to the fiscal imbalance in 2006, Charest passes the most important test of all - as a strong defender of Quebec's interests in federal-provincial relations.

And for all his generally harmonious relations with Harper, it was not good for either of them that they were seen as getting along too well. No federalist premier of Quebec needs to be perceived as propped up by Ottawa, and no prime minister needs to be seen as too cozy with a Quebec premier (although, who else is Harper going to get cozy with in Quebec, if not Charest, whom he often calls the strongest federalist premier of Quebec in his lifetime?)

In any event, along came Harper with the view that Canada's Kyoto emissions-reduction targets were simply unattainable by 2012 (he's right about that), allowing Charest to jump in as the great defender of the Kyoto accord, hugely popular in Quebec.

Wrapping himself in the Kyoto flag, Charest also shook off the tar baby of Mount Orford by defending Quebec's interests on larger environmental issues.

There's an old saying: Quand ca va bien, ca va bien.

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