Advantage: Charest

2006 was a good year for Quebec's premier. 2007 may be even better

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National Post, Saturday, December 30, 2006

On the floor of the Quebec legislature two weeks ago, there unfolded an exchange between Jean Charest and Andre Boisclair that was not only an extraordinary piece of parliamentary theatre but a harbinger of things to come in the election year that lies ahead.

The immediate question was Sunday shopping, and the number of employees to be allowed on the floor of grocery stores after regular opening hours. But the real issue was character, judgment andmaturity -- the factors likely to dominate the Quebec election campaign expected in April or May of 2007.

Boisclair, the youthful Parti Quebecois opposition leader, wanted to know why Premier Charest wasn't returning the calls of the retail interest groups arrayed on both sides of the question.

"Mr. Speaker," Boisclair began, "there's a word that comes to mind. I can't say it, but it begins with an 'm' and ends with an 'r', and there's an 'e', 'n', 't', 'e' and 'u' in between." Menteur. Liar.

Naturally, all hell broke loose as the speaker ordered Boisclair to withdraw this most unparliamentary language.

Undaunted, Boisclair plunged ahead. "The word that I spelled," he said, "fits the premier of Quebec well."

The uproar intensified, but still Boisclair went on. "Between reality that can be measured and verified, and what the premier says," he said, "there is a difference."

Charest knew a Christmas gift when he saw one. Accusing Boisclair of "tearing his shirt off over the question of opening hours," Charest detected "a demonstration of his lack of maturity and judgment."

Charest then moved in for the kill. "There is," he said, "a difference between saying what you think and saying whatever pops into your head."

Reeling from the exchange, Boisclair complained about Charest's "wounding comments," adding that as far as judgment went, he had never been forced to resign, as Charest once had in Ottawa, for calling a judge.

This brought Liberal House Leader Jacques Dupuis into the fray with a lethal comment. "People who live in glass houses," he said, "shouldn't throw stones."

In this single, riveting exchange, Boisclair allowed Charest to define him as lacking "the maturity and judgment" to lead Quebec. Moreover, he called attention to his unresolved character issues with the voters over his past use of cocaine while a minister in previous PQ governments -- actions that run afoul of the criminal code.

Boisclair's judgment had already been severely called into question for his recent participation in a video spoof of Stephen Harper and George Bush as a couple of good old Brokeback Mountain boys pleasuring one another in the outback. Not only was this in exceedingly bad taste, it needlessly reminded voters of Boisclair's own sexual orientation, a matter that even many social conservatives had been prepared to overlook.

The remarkable parliamentary scene provided the images of the two leaders that Quebecers would take into their annual political discussions around the family table over the holidays. Those impressions, one of a leader in command, and the other not up to the test, will form the baseline of Quebec public opinion going into an election season.

It's a strikingly different political climate from a year ago, when Charest was still widely in disfavour. At one point, fewer than 30% of polled Quebecers said they would vote for him.

But 2006 proved to be a very good year for Charest. First, he made a new friend in Ottawa in Stephen Harper, who delivered on a campaign promise of a role for Quebec within the Canadian delegation at UNESCO, with a promise of more to come in addressing the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

Then Charest got a year-end bonus when Harper introduced a motion recognizing Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada, a pre-emptive takeout of a Bloc Quebecois motion simply recognizing Quebecers as a nation. Not only did this motion receive all-party support in Parliament, but Charest introduced his own mirror motion in Quebec's National Assembly, leaving Boisclair twisting in the wind for days before the separatist leader finally joined the Liberals and Mario Dumont's Action Democratique du Quebec in endorsing Quebecers as a nation "within a united Canada." For the leader of the PQ, that was a very bad day at the office.

Finally, Charest used the run-up to the holidays to make a series of good news announcements, notably a $1.8- billion expansion in Alcan's aluminum- processing operations in the Saguenay. Harper helped out with a $350-million injection of federal funds in a $1.5-billion Pratt & Whitney effort to develop gas-turbine engines at its plant on Montreal's South Shore. Just before the holidays, Harper also announced federal approval for a major Hydro-Quebec development on the Rupert and Eastmain rivers in James Bay. Joyeuses fetes!

The optics were suddenly in the Premier's favour. For the first time in years, Quebecers saw the smiling Jean Charest, as when he rode a new provincially-funded commuter train from St. Jerome to Montreal. The television cameras even recorded the presence of a Santa on board.

Thus, Charest ends the year inmuch better shape than he began it, well positioned to move into campaign mode. The last CROP poll a month ago showed his Liberals still trailing the PQ by four points, 39-35. But anecdotally on the ground, it doesn't feel like that at all. It feels like Charest has moved ahead in December, and is knocking on the door of 40%, the threshold he needs to call an election.

Not only is Charest growing at the expense of Boisclair, so is Dumont; and those third party splits benefit the Liberals to the detriment of the PQ, especially in the regions outside Montreal. There are some PQ voters who would never vote Liberal under any circumstances, but who could park with the ADQ as an alternative to Boisclair. Dumont has been languishing in the low teens in the polls for the last year, but there is a sense he is on themove.

Moreover, there are two other parties on the ballot, the Greens, who have have been edging toward double- digit support in a province where Kyoto is holy writ, and Quebec Solidaire, which is both hard left and hard sovereignist, and whose 5% support in the polls comes entirely at Boisclair's expense.

Charest doesn't have to meet his legislature again until mid-March, by which time there's an expectation of a deal between Ottawa and the provinces on the fiscal imbalance. Voters here may not understand the technical details of the imbalance, but they know they expect both Harper and Charest to deliver on it. The number won't be anything like the preposterous $3.9-billion claimed by Gilles Duceppe as Quebec's rightful share, but if it's a $1-billion-plus figure, that will be real and defensible.

Putting such a number into a good-news budget in March will allow Charest to move smartly into an election campaign in April. In this scenario, the Quebec election will come before a federal campaign. (And since no one wants two campaigns at once, the Harper government would be likely to survive its budget. As much as Duceppe might denounce any fiscal imbalance deal as inadequate, he would be hard pressed to explain voting against it.)

As he flew out to Mexico last weekend for a family holiday, Charest left orders for his ministers to be back at their desks by Jan. 8. So will he, at which time he'll be in campaign mode. Whatever difficulties he may have experienced in his first term of office, everyone knows Charest will show up for the campaign. And in a campaign about leadership and character, he will begin with an advantage over Boisclair.

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