Blue skies for Jean Charest

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National Post, Friday, March 7, 2008

From last place to first place in six months. That was the good news for Jean Charest last week in the authoritative CROP poll, which placed the Quebec Liberals at 35%, the Parti Quebecois at 32%, while Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec continued its slide to 21% of voting intention. The government's satisfaction rating stands at a healthy 50%, and Charest is seen as best choice for premier.

The timing couldn't have been better for Charest, coming in the run-up to this weekend's Liberal convention in Quebec City, where the premier faces a leadership review.

Six months ago, there was serious concern about Charest's capacity to survive a leadership vote. Instead, this weekend should be a walk in the park for Charest. No one is even playing the expectations game about the number he needs to put up, but 75% is probably a lock, and no one would be surprised if his support among the rank and file proved to be in the 80s. He is a sitting premier, on a roll, leading a party that observes the discipline of power.

This is a complete sea change from last summer, when Charest's personal approval ratings, and the party's standing in the polls, were at historic lows. The government's satisfaction rating was mired in the low 30s. Charest was the last choice as best premier. The Liberals stood at only 23% in a late summer CROP poll, and at a disastrous 15% among francophones.

Dumont, as opposition leader, looked very much like a premier in waiting. And Pauline Marois, after her coronation as PQ leader, was expected to make an impressive return to the legislature in the fall.

All those expectations, and all those numbers, have since been stood on their heads.

It begins with a complete transformation of Charest's performance, starting with his personal appearance. He went back to the gym, lost 25 pounds, and got the gleam back in his eye. Annoyed at being reduced to minority status in the National Assembly last spring, he became the dominant figure in the legislature in the fall. Charest has always been a gifted parliamentarian, but he has learned to play the competing agendas and personalities of the opposition leaders off against one another.

Dumont, meanwhile, has seriously underperformed, while his team looks like the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. And Marois, trying to compete with Dumont on the "reasonable accommodation" multiculturalism debate, can't seem to take ownership of the identity issue, a defining matter in the sovereignty movement.

Charest has also reached out to his party by bringing in two of its most respected members, John Parisella and Michel Bissonnette, as unpaid part-time advisers. Parisella is a former chief of staff to two Liberal premiers, Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson, while Bissonnette is a former president of the party's youth wing.

Finally, Charest brought in Dan Gagnier, a former deputy clerk of the Privy Council in Ottawa and onetime principal secretary to David Peterson at Queens Park, to be his chief of staff. For the first time in his life, Charest is being run by a professional, and the difference in his operation has been widely noted by cabinet ministers, the public service and the Quebec business community, where Gagnier has standing as a former senior vice president of Alcan.

Gagnier has re-positioned Charest around two of the Liberals' historic brand strengths -- as managers of the economy and advocates of a tolerant and diverse society. With the strongest economy in more than three decades, Charest is finally taking and receiving some credit on this file. He's taken a leadership position in proposing a free trade agreement with Ontario, and as well as between Canada and Europe. And the Liberals' embrace of diversity, within a context of francophone cultural security, will be a major theme of the weekend convention.

This is a theme Charest knows from his own life, as the son of Red Charest and Rita Leonard. His mother, as he has often said, "told us to always keep a place at the table for welcome strangers."

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