Back in fighting trim

Thanks to a string of smart moves, Jean Charest once again has the look of a winner

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National Post, Thursday, November 29, 2007

MONTREAL - On a Friday night at the beginning of November, Jean Charest and his wife, Michelle Dionne, walked hand in hand into a movie complex in the former Montreal Forum.

They were in jeans, on their way to stand in line and buy tickets (for the George Clooney flick, Michael Clayton), with only one security guy following at a discreet distance. The Quebec Premier was looking fit -- 20 pounds thinner from working out in the gym. It is always a good sign for Charest when he loses weight --it means he's getting ready for a campaign.

"You're on a roll," he was told by an onlooker.

"We've had a good few weeks," he replied, "let's hope we can keep it going."

Since the beginning of the National Assembly's fall session in mid-October, Charest hasn't had one bad week. His opponents, Mario Dumont and Pauline Marois, haven't had one good one. Proving once again, as Robert Bourassa used to say, that a week is a long time in politics, and a year an eternity.

If Charest had his way, he would keep the legislature sitting through Christmas, rather than rising for the holidays and not returning until mid-March, when his minority Liberal government will face a major confidence test with an April budget. The way the fall session has been going, neither Dumont and the Action democratique du Quebec, nor Marois and the Parti Quebecois, should be in any hurry to force a spring election.

For one thing, Charest has a new message: It's the economy, stupid. This is the best economy Quebec has seen in decades, with 6.9% unemployment, in spite of serious job losses in forestry and manufacturing due to the strong dollar.

Charest has also got an economic vision. He's proposing a free trade agreement with Ontario, and wants to build another 8,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity. Plus, he's proposing an open and tolerant society, at a time when the reasonable accommodation debate has become a sort of xenophobic Gong Show down at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. This is bringing allophone and anglophone voters back to the Liberal fold in a hurry, while Dumont and Marois have stumbled badly over the debate on Quebec's identity.

Two other factors have figured in the revival of Charest's fortunes this fall. Notorious for running a bad office, Charest finally has someone who knows how to manage a team in Dan Gagnier. Formerly a senior VP for environmental and public affairs at Alcan, principal secretary to David Peterson at Queen's Park and deputy secretary to the Cabinet for communications at the Privy Council in Ottawa, Gagnier has been Charest's chief of staff for only two months. But the difference is already apparent, in terms of both competence and crispness. For the first time, Charest himself is actually being managed and positioned as a sitting premier. No longer does he touch lousy files such as the Mount Orford Park redevelopment project, which turned into an environmental disaster at the end of his first term.

Instead of improvising, he is governing, maximizing the advantage of incumbency where it matters most -- the economy and looking after Quebec's interests in the Canadian federation. Last week, he made a major address on his economic vision to the Montreal Board of Trade, and then rolled out a $620-million rescue package for the manufacturing sector, including tax breaks and preferences for Canadian procurement. This week, he was in Toronto for talks with Dalton McGuinty on reducing barriers to interprovincial trade.

Trailing badly in a CROP poll only two months ago, at 23% support (with only 15% among francophones), Charest already saw an eight-point bounce in numbers released four weeks ago, rallying to tie Marois and the PQ at 31%, with Dumont and the ADQ falling off to 28%. There is no reason to think Charest has stalled in November.

Dumont's test as opposition leader is whether he's seen as responsible enough to govern. He badly misjudged the situation by recently pressing a non-confidence motion because of low turnouts in school board elections -- a gesture perceived as akin to blaming the government for the weather. As for Marois, her judgment is very much open to question following her proposal of a bill establishing two classes of citizens, those who speak French and could run for office, and those who don't and couldn't.

The winner in all this? Jean Charest.

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