The unfulfilled promise of Mario Dumont and the ADQ

At one time, there was the chance the party could replace the PQ

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mario Dumont was one of those people who seemed like he was born 40 years old. But now that he's actually pushing 40 - he'll be 39 in May - he's putting aside a lifetime in politics, and getting a job in the real world. Like Benjamin Button, he is living his life backward, but also moving forward. It's, indeed, a curious life he has led.

Dumont's departure from politics yesterday leaves his party, Action démocratique du Québec, without a leader, and without a founding father. It is also reminder that while he lost a lot in the December election, Quebec also lost a lot, too - a party that might well have replaced the Parti Québécois as the alternative to the governing Quebec Liberals.

The political restoration of the two-party state means a repolarization between the forces of federalism and sovereignty, which means that the next election could well be on a question of country, at a time when after three terms in office it might well be the Liberals' turn to lose. Dumont and the ADQ offered not only an alternative on the right, but a liberating choice to voters held hostage for decades by the red and blue colours of the Liberals and PQ.

That's what was lost when the ADQ was marginalized in the Dec. 8 election, which reduced it from official opposition with 41 seats, to a third party with seven seats, and with Dumont's departure from the legislature, only six.

As such the ADQ doesn't even have either the required number of seats, 12, or share of the popular vote, 20 per cent (it obtained only 17 per cent), to qualify for standing as a recognized party of in the Assembly. That means, among other things, no staff, no space, and no parliamentary budget. However, sources in the premier's office say Jean Charest will move recognition of party status for he ADQ, an elegant gesture the PQ can hardly oppose. There's an echo of Charest's own history here; as leader of the Conservatives in Ottawa after 1993, he led a caucus of two members that had no standing in the House. He remembers that, and good for him.

Things might have come out very differently for Dumont had he made something of the golden opportunity he was handed in the 2007 election, which returned Quebec's first minority government in a century and a quarter, vaulted him to official opposition, and relegated the PQ to third place.

But then two things happened: Charest rose to the challenge, and Dumont wasted the opportunity. The voters were very fond of Dumont as a prospective son-in-law; what wasn't clear was whether they trusted him to take over the family business.

His job was quite simple - to make the case for himself as the leader of a government-in-waiting, and to introduce his front bench as a prospective cabinet. He never did either. He chose brinksmanship in 2007 by threatening to topple the government at a time when the leaderless PQ was quite disinclined to do so. Then in the fall of 2008, Dumont played games on the election of the legislature's speaker, supporting the PQ's candidate over the government's, leaving a livid Charest claiming he was doublecrossed, allowing him to raid Dumont's caucus for two members, and opening the door to the election that cost Dumont so dearly.

So his career trajectory took him not to the premier's office, but to the exit, entirely as a consequence of his own actions, and entirely by his own choice.

Had Dumont followed another path early in his political life, he would be a senior member of Charest's cabinet today, and a serious candidate to succeed him. But as the head of the Young Liberals, Dumont made a decision to support the Allaire Report in 1991, which essentially proposed stripping the federal government of most of its powers, a form of de-confederation that Robert Bourassa flatly repudiated. Elected as the lone ADQ MNA in 1994, Dumont had a minor supporting role with the Yes forces in 1995, and then proposed a 10-year moratorium on referendums, quite rightly sensing Quebecers had endured quite enough division for a decade. Taking a step back from the sovereignty crowd, he repositioned the ADQ as an autonomist, right wing, rural option. But it was never anything more than a parliamentary rump, until the breakthrough of 2007.

Dumont knows all about going it alone. And he knows about the loneliness of days on the road and nights away from home. Clearly, he and his wife decided in December that it was time for his family, with three young children, to come first. He's moving to Montreal. He's getting a job. Time, after 15 years of this, to move on.

There will be a moment of nostalgia, for what might have been, if the PQ wins the next election in 2013.

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