Three years of Jean Charest

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National Post, Thursday, April 13, 2006

Three years ago today, Jean Charest swept into office as Premier of Quebec. In the final words of his victory speech, he repeated his campaign slogan: "Nous sommes prets."

It's not clear, based on his uneven performance, just how ready Charest and the Liberals were for government. In fact, they have occasionally appeared to be incompetent.

Charest is a gifted communicator. Yet he has often delivered his message poorly. On several controversial files, the premier's office has failed to orchestrate important third-party and community endorsements of government policies.

The list of bungled files includes the full funding of Jewish private schools, the location of the new Universite de Montreal hospital and, most recently, the privatization of a ski hill and golf course within the provincial park at Mont-Orford in the Eastern Townships.

The proceeds from taking the ski hill and golf course private have been allocated for purchasing land to double the size of the park. A condominium project near the mountain apparently passes environmental review, and the privatized resort will jump-start the local economy, as the redevelopment of Mont-Tremblant by Intrawest has in the Laurentians.

It's a good news story that Charest's office has somehow transformed into a public-relations fiasco, complete with noisy protests from local citizens, benefit concerts to save the mountain, and the bitter resignation of the environment minister, Tom Mulcair, who essentially called Charest a liar for saying he had signed off on the project. Quel nightmare.

This is typical of the Charest government -- needless screw-ups on small files overshadowing the premier's generally strong performance on big-picture issues such as federal-provincial relations and managing Quebec's fiscal framework.

The litmus test of any Quebec premier in his relations with Ottawa and the other provinces is how well he defends the interests of Quebec. Charest has passed this test with provincial colleagues, as the premier who proposed the creation of the Council of the Federation.

Charest has also done well for Quebec in Ottawa -- both with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and his predecessor, Paul Martin. Charest was the big winner in the 2004 Health Accord, as the provinces obtained $41-billion in new health funding over 10 years, and Quebec obtained the "asymmetrical" arrangement of keeping its own reporting standards.

Charest was also a winner in the January federal election. The punishing defeat of the federal Liberals, and the emergence of the Conservatives as the new voice of federalism in Quebec, was a huge boost to Charest's re-election prospects. The Quebec Liberal brand had taken a collateral hit from the sponsorship scandal -- perhaps as much as 10 points. Where Charest's numbers had been languishing in the mid-20s before the election, he has since grown back to the low 30s.

Harper, in his Quebec City speech last December, and again in last week's Throne Speech, endorsed Charest's two main points for renewing federalism -- a place for Quebec at international forums such as UNESCO, and acknowledgement of the existence of a fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

Charest barely kept his own books in balance in last month's budget, but it was still his fourth balanced budget in a row. He also brought forward a big idea in the creation of a Generations Fund, harnessing increased revenues from Hydro-Quebec to pay down the province's $118-billion debt.

While Charest fights his way back to competitive poll numbers, the Parti Quebecois has problems arising from its choice of Andre Boisclair as leader, not least the unanswered questions from his cocaine use while a member of the Bouchard cabinet.

The PQ should be worried about the results of a byelection Monday in the East End Montreal riding of Saint-Marie-Saint-Jacques, a party stronghold for decades. While the PQ held the seat, its vote fell to 41% from 50% in 2003. The Liberals managed to hold on to 28%, down only two points from the general election. But the big story was a new left wing party, Solidaire Quebec, which grabbed an astonishing 22% in its first outing.

This is one more reason not to write off Charest. A year from now, he is sure to turn up for the campaign. Meantime, his new slogan should be: no more screw-ups.

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