It’s Jean Charest’s call, and his alone

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Welcome to the Guns of August, a summer election campaign in Quebec.

Unless Jean Charest changes his mind, he’s on track to send voters to the polls on Sept. 4, the day after Labour Day, a Tuesday. That would see him calling the election on Aug. 1, following a cabinet meeting.

It’s a narrow window of opportunity. A writ for the following Monday, Sept. 10, would leave the advance poll over Labour Day weekend, when many voters are away, and the Liberals count heavily on advance polls. The following Monday, Sept. 17, is a non-starter because it falls on the Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah.

Beyond that, the Charbonneau Commission will resume its televised hearings into the construction industry, and that’s not a narrative that plays into Charest’s election scenario. If he walks away from an election now, don’t expect one until the fall of next year, after the inquiry’s findings are released.

In effect, it’s the day after Labour Day or the fall of 2013, when the turmoil of the student revolt, and the churn of the construction inquiry, will be in the rear-view mirror. But fall 2013 is at the end of the five-year mandate, whereas the normal accounting to voters is after four years. At four months short of four years, Charest can’t be accused of calling a snap election.

Even so, there are voices of caution in the cabinet, caucus and campaign, those who remember what happened the last time a Liberal premier called an early election, in 1976 – the Parti Québécois came into power. All things considered, they would rather wait.

But this is Charest’s call, and his alone. And he’s inclined to go.

First of all, the Liberals have moved back ahead of the PQ in their internal polling. Not by a lot, but by enough to form a minority government, with the opportunity of breaking into majority territory during the campaign.

The splits of the opposition vote appear to be breaking in Charest’s favour, according to a senior Liberal source. For example, François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec are polling close to 20 per cent, and at that level more of those votes come from the PQ than the Liberals, the source says. Amir Khadir and Québec solidaire are hovering around 10 per cent, and every one of those votes comes at the expense of the PQ. Since Khadir already has a seat in the legislature, that should be enough to get him into the leaders’ debate, by definition a level playing field. The PQ will not be happy about that.

Normally, after three terms in office, an election would be about change, but Charest has the opportunity to make it about continuity instead.

His ballot question is simple: Who’s in charge, the democratically elected government, or a mob?

That the mob of students and anarchists would disrupt his meetings would only make his point.

And Charest has a deeper ballot question: What kind of Quebec do you want?

This poses a dilemma for Pauline Marois. There’s an alignment of forces on the left – the students, trade unions, Québec solidaire voters – with whom she’s already allied. That was her wearing the red square in the legislature in solidarity with the students. And that was her banging casseroles in the Argenteuil by-election campaign, a moment captured by the Liberals in a crude but effective attack ad that went viral on YouTube and got all kinds of earned media coverage.

In other words, while there are plenty of votes on the left in Quebec, they’re not middle-class votes. And that’s where elections are won.

Marois carries the burden of the PQ’s fundamental option of sovereignty. Voters remember the last referendum in 1995, and most don’t want to live through another one. For her part, Marois promises not a big referendum on a question of country, but a series of sectoral ones on issues such as culture. The referendum of the month club. Great.

Then there are the issues of fiscal frameworks and the economy. Charest’s finance minister, Raymond Bachand, is on track to balance the provincial budget in the next fiscal year, no mean feat coming out of the worst recession in 60 years. On the economy, unemployment of 7.7 per cent is just half a point above the national average of 7.2 per cent, when the historical spread can be as much as three or four points. Quebec’s unemployment is actually half a point lower than it is in the United States, at 8.2 per cent.

In fact, the uncertainty of the U.S. economy, and the continuing euro crisis, may give Charest his closing argument for a campaign – that it’s no time to change government. This was precisely how he closed the deal for a majority in 2008.

But this will be a very different campaign, one in which big societal choices are on the ballot. As the leader calling this election, Charest’s job is to articulate and frame them.

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