For Jean Charest, a summer’s respite before an election

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 20, 2012

“Had enough?” As a ballot question, that would work for all sides in a Quebec election.

Whether it’s mob rule of striking students in the streets, or the perceived incompetence and corruption of the Charest government, Quebecers have had quite enough of what’s been dubbed the spring of discontent.

It’s time for summer, which conveniently begins today. Time to go to the cottage or the beach.

Enough already. In a sense, that’s what the voters of Argenteuil were saying last week when they elected the Parti Québécois in a by-election. The margin of victory was thin, only 500 votes, but the riding north of Montreal is normally a safe Liberal seat, and will probably return to the fold in a general election.

It will take more than a loss in a by-election to throw Jean Charest off course from a fall election, probably in late September, before the Charbonneau Commission’s inquiry into the construction industry resumes (after breaking for the summer at week’s end) and becomes the story of the day again.

Meantime, he is counting on summer as his friend.

Charest was doing fine as long as he held to the hard line in dealing with student protests over tuition increases. Two-thirds of Quebecers supported his position, and a CROP poll indicated nearly half of them favoured an election on the issue. Those are numbers to win by.

Charest’s mistake was in negotiating with the student leaders, first agreeing to phase in the $325-per-year tuition increase over seven years rather than five, then agreeing to a clawback of ancillary fees that would have left Quebec universities even more hard-pressed.

Charest made an even bigger mistake in pushing the emergency law, Bill 78, through the legislature. As long as it was about the students, he was winning. As soon as it became about freedom of speech and assembly, he started losing.

He needed to make it about the students again, and they were only too happy to oblige. When they returned to the table late last month, Charest needed the talks to fail, as they did. The student leaders then accused the government of negotiating in bad faith. Welcome to the NHL, kids.

This repositioning of the government coincided with the return of Dan Gagnier as Charest’s chief of staff in the premier’s office. A noted crisis manager, Gagnier pulled Charest out of the ditch after he was reduced to minority government in 2007, and helped him regain a majority in December 2008. Gagnier left in the fall of 2009, but answered Charest’s call again last month.

Meanwhile, was that a red square Pauline Marois was wearing on her lapel the other day? That certainly tells voters which side she’s on, and it helps frame the ballot question.

However, Charest and the Liberals need François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec to do a better job of vote-splitting, and at the expense of the PQ. In the Argenteuil by-election, CAQ took just enough votes from the Liberals to elect the PQ.

Charest can’t run a five-week campaign on a single issue, such as a showdown with striking students, but he can make his opening and closing arguments on it. His problem will be making himself heard above the noise of students and anarchists disrupting his meetings. And yet those images would also make his point.

For the rest, Charest can fall back on the economy, which is one of two built-in advantages for the Liberals, the other being what late premier Robert Bourassa used to call “the ballot box bonus” of the PQ’s option of sovereignty. The PQ doesn’t need to promise a referendum; just the prospect of one is enough to send some voters over to the Liberals. A good campaign also has a positive message, one showing the leader with a vision, a plan, and Charest has one. It’s called Plan Nord.

Charest has the advantage of incumbency, and his own brand, though he’s also carrying the bur-den of both. After three terms in government, it would normally be time for a change. His disapproval ratings also hover around 70 per cent, when the tipping point is usually around 60 per cent. Then there’s the construction inquiry. It isn’t pretty.

All the more reason to get this election over with before the hearings again dominate the news cycle in late September. If Charest has an aggressive summer tour plan, he’ll be visiting competitive ridings across Quebec.

For all his failings, Charest happens to be the best retail politician of his generation. He has a history of showing up for campaigns. The next one will be no exception.

Meantime, it’s summer.

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