Jean Charest has been strangely off his game

Phony partition issue threw him for a loop, but real campaign starts with debate

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The Gazette, Friday, March 9, 2007

Of all the hypothetical questions that could jump up and bite Jean Charest, nobody saw one coming on the partition of Quebec following a Yes victory in another referendum.

The question dogged Charest for two whole days, after he was asked in English at a news conference about remarks he had made following the 1995 referendum, particularly about Quebec's aboriginal peoples wanting to separate from an independent Quebec.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Charest must have thought he was reliving a very bad scene in a movie. It's the old argument: if Canada is divisible, so is Quebec. Next, they'll be dredging up videos of Howard Galganov, the partition guy who later moved to Ontario.

At first, Charest allowed there could be circumstances under which Quebec might be divisible. That made it to the RDI news crawl in a heartbeat. A couple of hours later, the Liberal campaign put out a correction: "I reiterate, as premier and leader of the Quebec Liberal Party that the territory of Quebec is indivisible."

He went on: "I also reiterate that on the morning after a hypothetical separation of Quebec, our people would face a period of turbulence. In this scenario that we don't wish, we can't exclude the possibility that this question would be raised." Here, Charest was covering his aboriginal flank.

Ah-ha, went the media on the second day of the feeding frenzy, so Charest wouldn't defend the territorial integrity of Quebec. Andre Boisclair called him an "obsessed federalist." Mario Dumont taunted he was failing in his first duty as premier in defending the interests of Quebecers. A journalist on his bus even asked if he would leave Quebec in the event it left Canada.

There's never been such a commotion about a completely phony story.

It's not even a hypothetical question in the sense that as long as Charest and the Liberals are in office, there's won't be a referendum in the first place. So the question is moot. And if the Parti Quebecois won the election and called a referendum, Charest would be gone and it would be up to his successor to lead the federalist forces.

Charest's slip of the tongue was a rare unforced error. But in this campaign, he's been strangely off form. His sound bites haven't been crisp. His answers at news conferences have been oddly labourious. And his daily press conferences go on way too long - yesterday's ran for nearly an hour. Some reporters stayed at the microphone for three or four questions - which is a good way for them to hijack the agenda and a recipe for a campaign to lose control of it.

In all his previous campaigns, Charest has been an opposition leader, in the role of aggressor. This is his first campaign as premier, in the role of rassembleur. In the first week of the campaign, he was far too hot and aggressive, but he has since chilled.

One of the reasons Charest has been in less than top form is that Michelle Dionne has been nursing a bad cold for the last two weeks, and hasn't been on his bus. She is to Charest as Mila Mulroney was to Brian Mulroney on the campaign trail. As Mulroney used to say: "I'm just no good without her."

But Dionne showed up in Montreal yesterday with their daughter Alex for a noon-hour event around International Women's Day. The real Jean Charest also showed up. With a clip-on mike, and without a podium or text, he spoke in the round from the middle of room filled with nearly 1,000 women.

While he spoke with passion and conviction "not just on equality in law but equality in fact," it helped that Charest and the Liberals have credentials on women's issues. Treasury Board President Monique Jerome-Forget last year negotiated pay equity for 400,000 women in the public service. Just the mention of her name got an ovation. Who knew? Charest has ordered Quebec's 24 crown corporations to have equal representation of women and men on their boards within five years, and he pointedly urged the private sector to move in the same direction.

And Charest was surrounded by the 44 women running for him in this election. And not just as candidates, as he pointed out. Most of them will win. There's a very real possibility that half the next Liberal caucus will be women.

We are now at the end of the phony war phase of the campaign. The real campaign starts next Tuesday with the debate.

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