Strong economy is Charest's secret weapon

Premier is more popular when he is out of voters' sight

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The Gazette, Friday, July 27, 2007

We've all heard the old saying: out of sight, out of mind. In politics, there's something to be said for it, especially in summer.

Consider the case of Jean Charest, who has been doing a lot better in the month since he disappeared from view. To be sure, he went to Paris and had a photo-op with Sarko. There's no downside to pointing out Quebec's privileged relationship with France and its leadership role in the French-speaking world.

But other than that, have you seen Charest's picture in the paper in the last month? Has he been on the news? Does anybody know where he is? Does anybody care?

Answer to all of the above: nope.

And it's the best month he has had in quite some time.

Just being out of the National Assembly has been good for him. There's no opportunity for the opposition to torment him and no opportunity for Charest to screw up, as he did during the spring budget crisis, striking an intransigent pose in a minority House.

Neither has there been any summer crisis that would require action or the premier's presence. No strikes or scares in the public service, particularly the health-care sector. No environmental issues, other than blue-green algae in our lakes. No collapsing overpasses on the autoroute, just a generalized sense that Quebec is unsafe at any speed. It's not safe to drive to the cottage, and not good to swim when you get there. But that's hardly Charest's fault.

For the rest, ša va bien.

Charest is sitting on the strongest Quebec economy in modern times. The unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent is less than a point above the national average, when the historic average is usually at least two points higher. Quebec's unemployment is less than half a point above Ontario's, when historic spreads have been as wide as four points. Montreal's unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent is lower than Toronto's of 6.9 per cent. No one can remember when that ever happened.

Quebec, not Alberta, led the country in job creation last month. And Quebec leads the country's red-hot economy in consumer spending, particularly as thousands of women in the public service spend the pay-equity cheques Charest sent them.

These numbers are stunning, and they are going to pull up the voting intention of the Quebec Liberals. Without getting in the face of the voters, the Liberals need to make the case that they are the party of prosperity. It was the case when Jean Lesage was in office in the 1960s, under Robert Bourassa in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s, and it's the case today. This is, quite simply, the best economy we've ever seen.

The strong economy gives Charest another platform for representing Quebec's interests in the federation. His call for a free-trade agreement between Quebec and Ontario, as well as one between Canada and Europe, stakes out trade liberalization as entirely his territory.

It's not clear Europe wants a free-trade agreement with Canada, or that Quebec can negotiate one with Ontario. But the timing, in terms of removing barriers to interprovincial trade, is propitious. Ontario is heading into an October election, and both Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and his Conservative challenger, John Tory, are in favour of this. British Columbia and Alberta have set the example with their Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, essentially an FTA between them. Start with cab stands - you can take an Ottawa cab to the casino in Hull, but you can't get one there to take you back. That's how crazy it is.

There are two areas other than the economy where Charest has standing with the voters. One is on the environment, going back 15 years to when he was the federal minister at the historic Rio conference; and the other is on women's issues, where his record on gender equality now includes pay equity and parity at the cabinet table.

These four issues - the economy, leadership in the federation, the environment and women's files - should be enough for Charest to begin the process of rebuilding with the voters. On each of these issues, the Liberals have a comparative advantage - their record, against the Parti Qu?b?cois and the ADQ.

And on each one, Charest can project a sense of optimism, rather than anger. The voters don't like the angry Jean Charest. They are prepared to listen to the smiling one. And as the last month has also demonstrated, sometimes the best presence is none at all.

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