Charest's miscues lethal?

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Osprey writers group, Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Since 1960, every first-term Quebec government but one has won a second mandate.

The exception was Jean-Jacques Bertrand and the Union Nationale in 1970. Jean Charest could well become the second exception in 2007.

Even as Charest has delivered on major files during his first three years in government, he and his office have bungled a succession of minor ones that stick to him like tarpaper.

So while he has brought home the health-care accord, run three consecutive balanced budgets, launched a fund to pay down Quebec's debt out of its immense Hydro resources, and nurtured a special working relationship with the new prime minister in Ottawa, Charest continues to languish in the polls.

There's a pattern in Charest's succession of unforced errors. In every instance, his office neglected to do the necessary political due diligence of rounding up community and third-party endorsements in support of his decisions.

Full funding of non-religious curriculum of Jewish schools set off an ugly backlash with shameful overtones of anti-Semitism and had to be withdrawn when other communities with funded schools, such as the Greeks and Armenians, could have been lined up in favour of it.

When the University of Montreal and business elites lobbied Charest to locate a new hospital near the university's campus, the premier initially favoured their cause over a recommendation by his government's own task force that it be located downtown on the site of St. Luc Hospital. The task force happened to have been co-chaired by former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former premier Daniel Johnson, Jr.. St. Luc also happened to be the site favoured by the public and, in the end, that's where it's going.

And now, the sale of a ski hill in an Orford provincial park. Thousands of Montrealers have marched in the streets chanting, "save our park." Actually, the plan is to enlarge the park with the proceeds of the sale and hundreds of jobs will be created. If Intrawest had announced it as the Mount Tremblant of the Townships, the locals would have been dancing in the streets. But because it's in the public domain and the third parties weren't lined up, it's become a rallying cry for environmentalists.

The Orford file has come to symbolize Charest's political tone-deafness. He is widely perceived as a leader who doesn't listen.

For all that, only a fool would bet against Charest's re-election next year. Support for the Parti Quebecois has plunged by 15 points to about 35 per cent since the election of Andre Boisclair as its leader last fall. Boisclair's problem isn't his gay sexual orientation, it's the unresolved character issues around his use of cocaine while a minister in a previous PQ government.

Such is the vacuum of leadership that a trumped-up poll for Le Devoir concluded Lucien Bouchard would sweep the province if he returned as leader of a new party.

But the choices on offer are the Charest Liberals, the PQ led by Boisclair, the Action Democratique led by Mario Dumont, and a new left-wing party, Quebec Solidaire, which is bleeding PQ votes. That works for Charest.

His relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also working to Charest's advantage. After decades of federal-provincial skirmishing, Harper and Charest are bidding to open the most harmonious era since the Mulroney-Bourassa years in the 1980s. Harper sees Charest's re-election, and the avoidance of another referendum, as a top priority.

Also, Charest has concluded a fiscal pact with Quebec's municipalities, meaning most of the province's mayors and their local machines will be onside for the campaign.

Finally, for all his self-inflicted wounds in government, he is a gifted campaigner. Take the odds. Bet on Charest.

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