Jean Charest invokes Robert Bourassa's political legacy

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There's one thing Jean Charest understands above all about the Quebec Liberal Party - it's a family as well as a machine.

All the leading members of the Liberal family were on hand Monday for the launch of Georges-Hébert Germain's biography of Robert Bourassa, the dominant figure in the party from 1970 until his death in 1996.

The party that Charest inherited in 1998 was, as Charest said, "the party of Robert Bourassa. He touched their lives."

Fourteen years on, it is the family rather than the machine that has sustained Charest through the difficult moments of his third term in office. While his approval ratings plummeted in 2010 and 2011, the party remained rock solid behind the leader. There hasn't been a hint of disloyalty in the caucus, or a whisper of a putsch by the rank and file.

This is a very different story from the Parti Québécois, where half a dozen caucus members have bolted in the last year, and where Pauline Marois's life has been one continuous leadership crisis. But then the PQ has never been a family, and has always consisted of rival factions.

You could ask Lucien Bouchard about that. He was one of two former premiers attending the Bourassa book launch, the other being Daniel Johnson. Bouchard obviously wasn't there as a Liberal, but as a friend of Bourassa's. Bouchard used to refer to the PQ contemptuously as "that party," regretting all the weekends he didn't see his children while attending PQ meetings. After Bourassa left office in 1994, while Bouchard was opposition leader in Ottawa, they would occasionally run into each other outside the Outremont preschool attended by Bourassa's grandson and Bouchard's son. They would sit on a park bench and talk while the boys played.

"I grew up with Mr. Bourassa," Charest told the crowd. "I was 12 when he was first elected." Charest was fresh out of law school in Sherbrooke when Bourassa returned from the wilderness to regain the Liberal leadership in 1983 and the premiership in 1985. "His return in 1983 really impressed me," Charest said. "He crossed the desert and became premier of Quebec again." As environment minister in Brian Mulroney's cabinet, Charest met Bourassa privately for the first time in the premier's office, which was then in a building known as "the bunker" in Quebec City. "I was stunned by the man I met in private," Charest recalled. "He was affable and warm."

Charest allowed as how he was standing on the shoulders of a giant. Bourassa was the only four-term premier of the modern era, and the visionary architect of the James Bay energy projects. For his part, Charest will be seeking a fourth term of his own this year or next, and his Plan Nord has James Bay written all over it.

Bourassa would have been only too happy to see his political legacy invoked in the hope of improving Charest's prospects for re-election.

But obsessed as he was with job and poll numbers, Bourassa would have cautioned Charest against an early election (he called an early one himself in 1976 and that didn't end very well).

Quebec's January unemployment rate of 8.4 per cent, while down three-tenths of a point from December, is still above the national average of 7.6 per cent. There are no conditions under which Charest should call an election with unemployment over 8 per cent.

Then there was a poll by Léger Marketing last week that showed a statistical dead heat, with the Liberals and PQ tied at 29 per cent, and the Coalition Avenir Québec at 28 per cent. But when you drill down in the numbers, the PQ is at 35 per cent in the critical francophone segment, the CAQ at 32 per cent and the Liberals at 20 per cent. Which means that, outside the Montreal region, the Liberals are still in trouble.

This makes a fall election much more likely than a spring one. A fall date would also put the next election closer to the fourth anniversary of the last one, when voters' tolerance for a campaign will be appreciably higher.

The opportunity for Charest in the meantime is to define the alternatives. The PQ carries the burden of its sovereignty option, an automatic ballot question. And it proposes to put English CEGEPs off limits to most francophones and allophones. Charming.

As for the CAQ, it's difficult to imagine how a re-tread like François Legault can brand himself as representing the future when he carries so much baggage from his péquiste past. He is already defining himself by saying he would reopen collective agreements, and change the working conditions of teachers. Good luck with that.

Then there's Charest, the best campaigner of his generation, moving back into campaign mode. Robert Bourassa wouldn't have bet against him.

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