Charest's year of living dangerously

Liberal premier is slimmed down and back in charge

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 26, 2007

This has been Jean Charest's year of living dangerously.

He took a winter election campaign that should have been a slam dunk and turned it into a near-death experience.

He then refused to play the hand the voters dealt, saying a budget impasse in the spring was the "proof minority governments don't work." The only thing it proved was that Charest was dangerously out of touch with reality.

He had a pretty good summer simply by having the good sense to disappear for a long vacation and a period of reflection on his future, which was then considered behind him.

But the fall session of the legislature has marked Charest's return to form, and played to the inherent strengths of the Liberals as the party of economic prosperity and social tolerance, leaving the two opposition parties to quarrel over the issue of Quebec's identity in the wretched reasonable-accommodation debate.

As the year ends, there is no longer any talk of arranging an elegant exit strategy for Charest next spring, around his 10th anniversary as Liberal leader in April, and his 50th birthday in June.

And Charest himself, in his year-end news conference at the legislature, frankly acknowledged he had no one to blame but himself for the disastrous campaign that very nearly ended his political career.

"I admit it was a shock to us," he said. "The campaign didn't go well for me. It wasn't a good campaign."

Well, a little humility goes a long way.

It's true. Charest, quite simply the best campaigner in Canada, failed to show up for the campaign. What should have been a walk in the park turned into a sleep walk that narrowly averted catastrophe. Charest was never on message because he didn't have one. He allowed the media to hijack his bus, and they very nearly drove it off a cliff. He infuriated his erstwhile partner, Stephen Harper, by allocating the fiscal imbalance payment entirely to a tax cut, which only served to remind voters in the closing days of the campaign of his broken promises from the last one.

And then he said minority government didn't work, when that was clearly the outcome voters wanted, and when they saw it was working perfectly well in Ottawa.

The same Jean Charest was back last week saying not only does minority government work, it's extremely productive. In the fall session, he noted, the National Assembly passed no fewer than 34 bills, as many as in the busiest session under the previous Charest majority government. Why, it's almost a miracle of loaves and fishes.

The surly Charest, whom the voters can't stand, is gone. The smiling Charest, to whom the voters will give a hearing, is back.

Two things have transformed Charest. The first is a change of attitude. He's lost 20 pounds and he has the gleam in his eye again. In the legislature, his debating skills and survival instincts are giving him a significant tactical advantage over his opponents, Mario Dumont and Pauline Marois. He's finding he can play the game in a minority House, from one issue, and one vote, to the next.

The second is a change of management. There has been a huge improvement in the operation of the premier's office in the three months since the arrival of Dan Gagnier as chief of staff. In an office once notorious for not even returning phone calls, files that once hung around for months are moved in days. A former senior vice-president at Alcan and previously deputy clerk of the Privy Council in Ottawa, Gagnier's strengths are in administration and strategic communications, and it shows in the management of Charest's time and schedule.

The premier is now being managed as a strategic asset in a way that maximizes his incumbency and his natural strength in federal-provincial relations, always a top-of-mind issue with Quebec voters. Thus, the Jan. 11 first ministers' meeting on the economy, where Charest should play a leading role, though he should still be aware of the need to mend fences with Harper.

Meanwhile, Dumont has had a disastrous fall session, and by his own admission badly miscalculated in threatening to bring down the government over a low turnout in school-board elections, as if Quebec were to blame for that. That was really just indicative of Dumont's immaturity and bad judgment. As for Marois, she might be slowly rebuilding the PQ's base, but her presence in the legislature only makes Charest's point he needed a real rather an imaginary opponent.

Quebecers have a way of taking stock of their political leaders around the table of the Quebec family over the holidays. Their sense of Dumont is of a nice young man who isn't ready yet to run the family business, while Marois is seen as a woman who lives in a chateau.

And Charest, whom they were writing off six months ago, is looking like a man in charge.

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