Charest, back in the driver's seat

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National Post, Friday, May 2, 2008

Mario Dumont's support has melted like a snow bank in May. Only eight months ago, his party, the Action democratique du Quebec, stood at 34% in the authoritative CROP poll, putting it in first place, ahead of the Parti Quebecois at 30%, while Jean Charest's Liberals were a distant third at 24%.

This week's CROP poll tells an entirely different story. Charest and the Liberals have rebounded to 38% -- majority territory-- with the PQ at 29% and the ADQ at 17%. It's a remarkable turnaround by Charest, and an equally historic collapse by Dumont.

What happened? Two things. First, Charest got his act together. Then, Dumont blew his opportunity to position himself as a prospective premier, and his team as a government in waiting. And as our mothers used to tell us, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

Dumont's opportunity presented itself in the minority House, where his party has formed Quebec's official opposition since the March, 2007, election. But in another poll by Leger Marketing last week, the PQ was seen as a more effective opposition party by a 2-1 margin.

As for Charest, his low moment came last June, when his new minority government teetered on a budget vote, and the Premier angrily declared the Parliamentary impasse was proof "minority governments don't work." The voters, who saw minority government working quite well in Ottawa, thought otherwise.

Eventually, the Premier came around: By the end of the second sitting last fall, Charest was talking about "co-habitation" with the other parties. As he told the Liberal party's policy convention last month, when he received a Soviet-level 98% approval in a leadership review: "I listened. I changed."

Rather than appearing annoyed in the National Assembly, Charest is now having the time of his life. He has always been a gifted parliamentarian, but for the first time in his career, he has developed a sense of tactics.

He has pushed Dumont and Marois off into the same corner, setting one against the other. While the opposition parties are opposing one another, the government is governing.

For example, the PQ and the ADQ have been squaring off over the Quebec identity issue, while the Liberals claim uncontested ownership of cultural diversity. For Dumont, this is a variation of the "reasonable accommodation" theme he struck successfully in last year's campaign. For Marois, it's a matter of protecting the PQ's sovereigntist flank while keeping the sovereignty option on ice. (And with good reason: CROP sees a referendum on sovereignty defeated by a thumping 64-36 margin.)

Dumont played the identity card again in the last month, saying Quebec has enough immigrants, and calling for what used to be known as "the revenge of the cradle." This may be playing to the gallery, but it hasn't received very good reviews. Last fall, Charest branded Dumont as a girouette -- a weathervane--and it has stuck.

The Liberals, no less than other Quebec parties, must be perceived as defenders of what Robert Bourassa once termed "cultural security," but the Liberals are the only party also promoting diversity, and this plays to the strength of their brand. The Liberals are the natural home for Quebec's anglophone and allophone minorities, and the reason-able-accommodation issue has only strengthened that affiliation.

The Liberals are also perceived as the party of sound economic management, and Charest is finally taking, and receiving, credit for the strongest Quebec economy in more than three decades.

Finally, all Quebec premiers are measured as defenders of Quebec's interests in the federation, and Charest has taken a lead in promoting a Canada-EU free-trade agreement, as well as reducing barriers to interprovincial trade with Ontario.

Completely written off only eight months ago, Charest is now in a position to become Quebec's first three-term premier since Maurice Duplessis. From very nearly becoming history, he now has a chance to make it.

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