Together, again: Harper and Charest

After months on the outs, the premier and the prime minister are making nice

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The Gazette, Monday, July 21, 2008

In the modern era of relations between Ottawa and Quebec, there are two standards of excellence - the Pearson-Lésage and Mulroney-Bourassa years. These were times of opportunity and achievement, and they were enhanced by the outstanding relationships between the prime minister and premier of the day.

Lester B. Pearson and Jean Léage in the 1960s negotiated the Canada-Quebec Pension Plan and medicare, among other enduring achievements. Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa, in the 1980s, were partners on Meech Lake and free trade. In both periods, prime minister and premier got along famously.

In the current state of play between Stephen Harper and Jean Charest, there is already a record of significant achievement, although their interpersonal relationship remains very much a work in progress.

"There's a whole host of issues on which we've been successful," Charest notes. "On issues like fiscal imbalance, the recognition of Quebec in international affairs and our participation at UNESCO, the recognition of Quebec as a nation. It's been a very significant move by Mr. Harper and the federal government."

Most of this occurred in the first year of the Harper government in 2006 and early 2007. And that's no accident. In the first year of their relationship, until the Quebec election in March 2007, Harper and Charest were practically soulmates. Since then, their relationship has been dogged by missed signals and misunderstandings. Two low points were Charest's packaging of the fiscal imbalance transfer payment as a tax cut, on which Harper was completely blindsided in the last week of the 2007 provincial campaign; and Harper's appearing at a luncheon event with Mario Dumont last December in his riding of Rivière-du-Loup. Charest brushed it off publicly at the time saying the PM was as welcome in the opposition leader's riding as his own of Sherbrooke. Privately, he was furious, and his campaign operatives in the Quebec Liberal Party went ballistic.

Since then, Harper and Charest have been trying to re-build a solid working relationship, while recognizing that their special relationship might be a thing of the past. Essentially, the relationship is now based on mutual interest. Each needs the other to support his vision of a functional federation. And each can help the other get re-elected.

In politics, relationships don't get more focused than that.

Thus, after a period of months when they barely spoke, Charest made a point of phoning Harper on his 49th birthday in April.

And Harper made a point of attending a pre-50th birthday party for Charest following a speech in Ottawa in May. Harper actually went out of his way to be there. His office had thought Charest would be arriving at the Château Laurier around 7 p.m., and that the PM could do a drop-in on the way home. In the event, Charest wasn't scheduled to appear until 9 p.m., and Harper came back from 24 Sussex, something he never does once he gets home.

It was a small gesture, but a significant one, that did not pass unnoticed by Charest.

Charest has also been saying some things about Harper, notably in a long-form interview in the current Policy Options magazine, that could not have gone unnoticed by Harper and his close entourage in Ottawa.

For example, Harper has planted a Canadian flag on the issue of Arctic sovereignty, one of those defining questions of Canadian identity. Charest places a high importance on the sustainable development of Quebec's northern territories in cooperation with Inuit and First Nations. This is a very good policy fit between the PM and premier, as Charest points out.

"We have a common inspiration and that's John Diefenbaker and Roads to the North," says Charest. "I always thought Diefenbaker was very inspiring in what he did to the North."

Citing a Conservative prime minister from the West as a role model on Arctic sovereignty was extremely sensitive on Charest's part.

And he added: "I see a great opportunity for us, and I couldn't agree more with Prime Minister Harper on developing Canada's North."

On a similar wavelength, Charest also credits Harper with supporting Quebec's leading role in seeking a free-trade deal with Europe, which as a matter of international trade is plainly in federal jurisdiction.

"I've had many conversations with Mr. Harper on this and he's been very supportive," Charest says. "We've worked as a team on this."

These are positive signals, sent in the clear, and impossible to miss.

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