Charest begins to show some life - he's back in the game

Premier's focus on the economy and his accommodation letter help him

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The Gazette, Monday, November 5, 2007

Robert Bourassa's favourite saying, quoting Sir Harold Wilson, was "a week is a long time in politics, and a year an eternity."

And a month? Well, let's just say there was an October Surprise in last week's CROP poll showing a bounce for Jean Charest and the Quebec Liberals, whose prospects for revival had been virtually written off only a month earlier.

Charest was given only until Christmas to get back in the game, but the CROP indicates he is already there, and this after just three weeks of the fall sitting of the minority legislature in Quebec City.

According to CROP, the Liberals have snapped back eight points to tie the Parti Québécois in first place at 31 per cent, with Mario Dumont and the ADQ slipping to third place at 28 per cent.

And that was before Charest's open letter to Quebecers on reasonable accommodation, which might prove to be an important moment of moral leadership.

Looking inside the numbers, the Liberals still trail among francophones, at 23 per cent, to 36 per cent for the PQ and 32 per cent for the ADQ. But that's a big improvement over 15 per cent back in September, when they were completely out of the game. If Charest can close the gap to single digits, with a tight margin between the PQ and ADQ, he will be very competitive again.

The best news for Charest is that the Liberals have consolidated their base on the island of Montreal, where they lead again by 11 points, 37 to 26 over the PQ, with the ADQ at 19 per cent.

And then there's the satisfaction rate with the Charest government, up 13 points to 44 per cent in just a month.

What is Charest doing differently? For one thing, he has a new core speech about the economy: ça va bien. It's about time he took some credit for the best economy, with the lowest unemployment rate and highest job creation rate, in decades. The economy and prosperity are vital attributes of the Liberal brand as a party of managers. When the focus is on the economy, the voters are inclined to trust the Liberals with their money.

That's true especially when they begin to seriously compare Charest not to perfection, but to the alternatives.

Mario Dumont and the ADQ have one big test to pass as a prospective premier and government. Are Dumont and his team competent enough to run Quebec? Mario is a very nice looking young man, and he might marry your daughter, but would you let him run the family business?

On the evidence of the last month, the answer is Not Yet. Dumont apparently didn't know the Caisse de Dépot had been part of a management consortium to buy BCE Ltd., dropping out only at the end. If Quebec's pension fund was part of the biggest private equity deal in the history of Canada, this should not have been news to Dumont.

Then, he keeps tilting at windmills on reasonable accommodation and immigration, giving new meaning to shameless opportunism.

Pauline Marois also had a very bad month, with her blatant attempt to outflank Dumont on the identity issue by offering a bill that would require elected officials to speak French as a condition of holding office. The least that can be said is her Bill 195 violates both the Quebec and Canadian charters, as she would have known from briefings on the subject when she was deputy premier in 2001. And then she gets uppity when journalists ask how her English lessons are going.

We are finding out she can't take a punch, which is an important piece of information. We are also finding out why Charest was so anxious to have her in the National Assembly, as a real, rather than an imagined, opponent.

And then there is the Bouchard-Taylor commission, otherwise known as The Gong Show. These open mike hearings have nothing to do with public policy, and are nothing more than talk radio - bad talk radio.

Thus, Charest's open letter, unusually partisan in its tone, but right on target in taking aim at Dumont, Marois and all the yahoos who have portrayed Quebec as a xenophobic society.

"I never thought it possible in Quebec," Charest wrote, "that the leaders of our democratic process would feed on prejudices rather than fight them. I would never have thought it possible that aspiring premiers would play with Quebec's international reputation." Ouch!

Dumont and Marois went ballistic. But they were responding on Charest's terms, he wasn't engaging on theirs.

One proposes a vision of a tolerant society, open to the world. The other two are standing in line with the yahoos at the open mike on The Gong Show.

He wins. They lose.

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