Charest flays Boisclair, Dumont on the numbers

Calls cost of promises a key test of competence, credibility

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The Gazette, Monday, February 26, 2007

In the library of the ecole Secondaire de Mortagne in Boucherville yesterday morning, Jean Charest was warming up for the requisite battle of statistics with Andre Boisclair and Mario Dumont.

"Nice to see you in the library," Charest told reporters, "I expected that at this hour you might be in church."

Charest warmed to his main theme: taking down the credibility of his two opponents on the costs of their platforms. This is about a core attribute: perceived competence to govern Quebec.

In the Parti Quebecois platform, Charest found a hole of $1.83 billion in uncosted promises, $1.1 billion in foregone revenues from Boisclair's promise to abolish the capital tax on business, $700 million to hire new doctors and nurses in the health care system, and another $83 million in loose change.

As for Dumont and the Action democratique du Quebec, Charest repeated his soundbite that Dumont's campaign is just "des clips et pas des chiffres," all soundbites and no stats.

It's true that Mario's kind of making it up as he goes along. He doesn't have a ground game, so he goes to where the people are - shopping malls. He doesn't have much money, he doesn't have a full slate of candidates, and his program is pretty well whatever he decides on the spot. He's counting on his "air game," television coverage of his campaign, to build on his recent bump up in the polls.

The Liberal campaign chose yesterday for its "bataille des chiffres" because Boisclair put out his platform on Saturday.

But the boys and girls from the media bus had other things they wanted to discuss with Charest during a full-dress news conference that ran for nearly an hour, where each journalist was allowed not only follow-up but further questions. For the media, it's the easiest way to hijack the agenda; for a campaign, it's the fastest way to lose control of it.

The press corps spin, repeated as accusations in one question after another, was that Charest was running a "campagne de peur," for suggesting that Ottawa would stop transfer and equalization payments to Quebec in the event it left Canada.

This was in response to Boisclair's suggestion that Quebec could negotiate transfers, including the fiscal imbalance, in separation talks with Ottawa.

"Voyons-donc!" Charest scoffed, as if the feds would be in the business of sending equalization and transfer payments to Quebec after it left the federation.

But one reporter even asked if he wasn't indulging in the old Liberal tactic of scaring voters about losing their pensions. Reality check would be more like it.

Charest then went to the "R" word, which has been banned from the PQ platform, because their focus groups have told them that they really, really, don't want another referendum.

So the PQ are calling it a public consultation, lifted from the French title of the Levesque government's 1978 Loi sur la consultation populaire. The official English title is, you guessed it, the Referendum Act.

"White cat, black cat, what's important is that he catches the mouse," said Marc Laviolette, a PQ hard-liner and candidate in Soulanges, in a metaphor that could come back to haunt Boisclair.

But then Boisclair himself let the "R" slip in his speech to the PQ national council.

"We have chosen, in the first pages of our roadmap, to propose to Quebecers, as soon as possible within our first mandate, a referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec, which will lead us to the liberty of Quebec," he said to sustained applause.

Charest jumped all over this at virtually every stop on the weekend, saying Boisclair was playing Quebecers for fools.

It is early days yet, the phony-war, name-calling phase. The real campaign will begin with the leaders' debate on March 13. So far, Mario is surfing on his free TV time, Boisclair is exceeding low expectations, and Charest, as the incumbent and favourite, is subject to the closest scrutiny.

The Liberals stumbled unexpectedly out of the starting gate on day one, when Charest spoke to a half-empty hall in his hometown of Sherbrooke. The next time he goes home, the event will be organized by his tour, not by his friends.

But at the Boucherville school, the parking lot was full of SUVs from the South Shore bedroom community, and the hall was filled to overflowing.

These voters, and suburbanites like them in the 450 belt around the island of Montreal, will have a lot to say about the outcome.

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