Charest and Harper have a chance to get back together

Dumont's departure could remove some friction between the leaders

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The Gazette, Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mario Dumont's departure from the political scene opens the door to a rapprochement of sorts between Stephen Harper and Jean Charest.

As long as Dumont was around as leader of the ADQ, Harper was going to be conflicted in forging political alliances in Quebec, and Charest was going to be annoyed.

Harper had a natural affinity with Dumont as the leader of a new party on the right of the political spectrum, with both the Conservative and ADQ heartland centred in the 418-area-code region around Quebec City.

As Harper put it in an interview with Policy Options last year: "I can only say that I've known Mr. Dumont for a long time. He supported the Conservative Party in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections. But the political reality is that the Conservative Party is a blend of two political tendencies, with support from the Quebec Liberals and the ADQ."

In other words, Dumont was there in the shallow times for Harper, and the Conservatives found supporters in both provincial quarters in the last two elections. Harper is genuinely fond of Dumont, and is reliably thought to have offered him a place in his close entourage, as a platform to becoming a star Quebec candidate in the next election.

All things considered, especially considering Harper's relationship with Charest, it's just as well that Dumont chose a second career as a television host rather than a move to federal politics.

There have already been quite enough advisers from the ADQ around Harper, and they've given him nothing but bad advice on Quebec, especially in the last campaign. Had Dumont moved to Ottawa, that would have foreclosed any possibility of Harper and Charest patching things up.

It is in their mutual interest to do so. Harper's aggressive attack on "the separatist coalition" helped him stave off the threat to his government during the week-long parliamentary crisis in late November and early December, but it was a disaster in Quebec, the worst kind of wedge politics. If Harper is to rebuild trust in Quebec, he needs to come here frequently, be seen again as delivering the goods and once again working with the Charest government in the midst of a terrible economic crisis.

There's plenty of opportunity there for Harper, simply in being prime minister, making major announcements, making speeches, making himself seen and heard. But in terms of managing the federation, and the conduct of federal-provincial relations, there's no more important partner than the premier of Quebec.

Other than being a major interlocutor, Charest has something else Harper needs - the Big Red Machine. The provincial Liberals have the only real ground game in Quebec, and it matters quite a bit which party it supports. And that depends entirely on the call of the leader. In the past two elections, Charest's position has been that the Quebec Liberals should support the federalist party with the best chance of beating the Bloc Québécois - essentially the Liberals in the Montreal region and the Conservatives in the Rest of Quebec (a much bigger prize, with 50 seats in play as opposed to only 25 in Montreal). This works very well for Charest, in that it allows him to take a principled stand, while playing both sides of the federal street. And while many Quebec Liberals like Michael Ignatieff, it's not in Charest's interest to have all those eggs in one basket.

In the first half of last fall's campaign, Charest thought Harper was on track to win 30 seats here, but that was before the PM got whipsawed by the cultural cuts, juvenile crime proposals and the stupid Conservative mobile billboard on voting for the Bloc being a waste of money (it was the ADQ geniuses in the Tory war room who signed off on that one).

What started out as a very promising relationship between Harper and Charest - potentially the most productive between a prime minister and a Quebec premier since the Mulroney-Bourassa years - has since gone south. And they are both to blame in about equal measure.

Charest should never have taken $700 million in fiscal imbalance money in 2007 and given it to voters as a tax cut. Politicians usually bribe voters with their own money, not other people's, and the blowback from English Canada was huge. Worse, Harper never got a heads up, and no leader likes being blindsided like that. From his side, Charest was extremely annoyed when Harper did a joint appearance with Dumont in his hometown of Rivière-du-Loup during the provincial minority period. It looked like a laying on of hands, at a very delicate time, and Charest was livid.

And so it's gone ever since, steadily downhill, each leader missing or ignoring conciliatory signals from the other. It's time they both got over it. Too much, starting with the common good, depends on it.

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