Charest could ride his success with the economy to a majority

Quebec's economy is strongest in 30 years, but Charest can't get credit for it

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Gazette, Monday, June 11, 2007

In 1970, Robert Bourassa ran the Quebec Liberal election campaign on the promise of creating 100,000 jobs during a first four-year mandate. He was so closely identified with this promise, and the Liberals so synonymous with the economy, that he became known as "Bob Le Job."

In the last year alone, from May 2006 to May 2007, the Quebec economy has created more than 100,000 jobs, an unprecedented achievement in modern times.

As Statistics Canada reported on Friday: "While employment was little changed in Quebec in May, the unemployment rate held steady at its historic 33-year low of 7.2 per cent. Since the beginning of the year, employment has risen 1.3 per cent, above the 0.3 per cent growth for the same period in 2006. So far this year, increases in construction, accommodation and food services, and information, culture and recreation have more than offset losses in the manufacturing sector."

Quebec's unemployment rate of 7.2 per cent last month was only 1.1 per cent above the national rate of 6.1 per cent - significantly lower than the historical spread of two points above the national average.

Doesn't, or shouldn't, Jean Charest get some credit for presiding over the strongest Quebec economy in more than than three decades? You can be sure Bourassa would have made these numbers work for him with the voters.

But Charest didn't run on the economy in the March election, which in retrospect he should not have moved up from the spring, when these remarkable numbers would have been out there.

He ran on his larger record, including health care and tax cuts, where he ran into a high degree of voter dissatisfaction with the government, which rose from 50 per cent to 57 per cent during the campaign, coming very close to the generally acknowledged tipping point of 60 per cent.

But it all played out in the way the Liberals framed the ballot question. They should have been running on the economy, and as the party of prosperity.

Instead, they had a slogan, "United for Success," which was anything but memorable, when their positioning statement should have been simply, "Ca va bien."

Running on the economy would have allowed Charest to slide into his achievements on managing the fiscal framework - balanced budgets, the creation of the Generations Fund to pay down debt, the two upgrades of Quebec's credit rating in New York, reducing the cost of borrowing and improving its reputation in global capital markets.

In other words, he could have played from strengths, instead of his perceived weaknesses. Even on federal-provincial fiscal frameworks, Charest took a

$2.2-billion win on the fiscal imbalance, and turned it into a $700- million tax cut that reminded voters only of broken promises, and ended any further discussion of that issue with the feds.

So the party that has presided over unprecedented job creation took no credit for it, and the premier who won historic financial gains from Ottawa received no credit for them. The Liberals and Charest were on different message tracks, which very nearly cost them an election they should have won in a walk.

Which proves a very good political point: If you don't talk about your achievements, you shouldn't be surprised if the people don't vote for them.

Yet the strong economy might yet provide a political framework on which the Liberals and Charest can build a recovery. The Liberals are seen as the party of economic managers, and Charest has proposed two big ideas. One is free trade with Ontario and the other is expanding Quebec's hydroelectric exports.

A free-trade agreement with Ontario would, at long last, eliminate the ridiculous barriers to interprovincial trade. An Ottawa taxi can drop a customer at the casino in Hull, but if it tries to pick up a fare there, faces a huge fine. Charest has made progress on this file with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, notably in the construction trades. McGuinty is facing an election in October and his rival, Conservative leader John Tory, openly advocates a free-trade deal with Quebec, along the lines successfully negotiated between Alberta and British Columbia.

There's nothing to prevent Charest having this conversation with both of them over the summer, and making a deal with whichever one wins the Ontario election. By then, Charest's own legislature will be coming back for the fall session.

There is a way back for Charest. It's the economy, stupid.

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