Charest had best be careful in calling early election

But there will be few changes in the government's economic portfolios

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It happens that Jean Charest's date for a snap Quebec election, Dec. 8, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. He'd better hope so, because a lot can go wrong in snap elections. Campaigns matter and stuff happens, especially when the voters don't want an unnecessary election, particularly at the start of the Christmas season.

Oh, and by the way, Quebecers have just dragged themselves to the polls in an unnecessary federal election which, in this province, changed exactly nothing.

Besides, voters like minority governments - they like keeping the government on a short leash. One of the reasons Charest's approval numbers are way up is that he's been working hard to make minority government work, and he has been rewarded for it in the polls. That doesn't mean Quebecers want an election. By a significant margin, they don't. They really don't.

Seventy per cent of Quebecers have just told CROP, in a poll published in La Presse yesterday, that they don't want an election. So Charest's biggest challenge, if he's going to pull the trigger, is to make a convincing case that it's in their interest to have one.

If he can't define the ballot question, and do so in the first days of the campaign, then he could be in very big trouble. Angry voters have a way of turning early election calls on the heads of the people who called them.

You can look this up under 1976, when Robert Bourassa called an election only three years into his second term on the flimsy pretext he needed a fresh mandate to negotiate constitutional change with Ottawa. Next, suivant.

Charest himself called a winter election in 2007, two months ahead of plan, to take advantage of André Boisclair's meltdown as leader of the Parti Québécois, and nearly got handed his head instead. Charest forgot to show up for the campaign, while Mario Dumont and his ADQ rode a wave of discontent that produced Quebec's first minority legislature in a century and a quarter.

So, if you want an election, Premier, beware of what you wish for.

That being said, Charest does have a compelling campaign scenario - that he needs a strong mandate, a new Quebec consensus, to do what has to be done in the face of a rising economic global storm. The meltdown in capital and financial markets is more than a liquidity crisis, it's a global crisis of confidence. It's the only thing on anyone's mind, totally top of mind and completely unprompted as the top issue. Health care? Take a number. Global warming? Forget it.

This is a serious time, a time for serious leadership, and at this very moment the National Assembly doesn't look like a serious place, but more like a schoolyard in need of adult supervision.

Last week, Dumont doublecrossed Charest by supporting the PQ's candidate for the speakership of the legislature. Two days later, Charest got even, and then some, when he announced that two ADQ members had crossed the floor to join the Liberals, and this on the eve of an ADQ general council. Meantime, if Dumont were to lose only two members to the PQ, Pauline Marois would become leader of the opposition. Maybe Dumont should have thought about that before he messed with Charest.

The mood of the legislature is only going to deteriorate as the pre-writ posturing intensifies over the coming days. There's nothing phony about such a phony-war period. It's bitter and twisted and full of recriminations.

So much for co-habitation. No one is talking about a common front in the legislature in the face of the economic storm. Nor should they, since all three parties have different solutions. As one of Charest's close advisers puts it, "there are three different hands on the wheel."

Dumont is the hand of the unfettered free market, and that's not really working right now. Marois is the hand of state interventionism, priming the economic pump. Charest proposes himself as the steady hand, the leader of the Liberal Party, with huge brand equity as managers of the economy.

Why now? Well, the equity and credit markets are leading indicators of confidence, and they have taken a frightening fall. The ripple effect is coming in the Quebec economy, heavily dependent as it is on exports in resources and the manufacturing sector. The crisis in the forestry sector could be just a warning of what's ahead. Charest wants to get this ship to a safe harbour before the storm blows up.

He has a lot going for him - favourable polls that show a double digit lead over the PQ, with Dumont cratering; a high approval rating more than 60 per cent in terms of satisfaction with the government, and slam-dunk numbers over the other two leaders on who would make the best premier. The fundamentals are good, but the environment of such an election call is incredibly volatile and completely unpredictable. A lot wise owls around Charest don't like this idea, but he does. And it's his call.

He'd better be right about the Immaculate Conception. But it also comes on the morrow of Pearl Harbor Day.

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