Election train pulls into Quebec

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National Post, Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another election train is being readied to leave the station, this time in Quebec. All that remains is for the conductor, Jean Charest, to holler "all aboard!"

All aboard for a majority, hopes the leader of another minority government who is sorely tempted to call an election because of favourable polls and a weak and divided opposition. For millions of voters who've just seen the federal version of this movie, welcome to the sequel, Made in Quebec.

That's the what of it. The why of it has a familiar ring, too. The Premier is looking for a strong mandate so that he can deal with the global financial crisis.

Well, that's a legitimate pretext, if ever there was one, for an early election writ. While it might be manufactured, it's not made up. There?s definitely a cold wind, and a long winter coming. And like Stephen Harper before him, Charest thinks he's better to go now, while the going's still good, before the effects of the coming global downturn bite into the Quebec economy, the employment picture and the government's capacity to run a positive fiscal framework.

"He fundamentally believes we?re going into a very different period," says a close associate of the Premier. "We're being told by our own economists that we are into unprecedented, uncharted waters."

He means the tsunami that has swept global equity markets in the last month, following the collapse of the financial system that has led Washington to nationalize Wall Street in the blowback from the subprime mortgage fiasco. This isn't really what anyone meant by globalization, but it's a version of it, and Quebec is highly vulnerable to nasty aftershocks in exports, as well as potentially devastating effects on new investment and job creation in a global credit squeeze.

If difficult things have to be done, argues Charest, then he needs a majority to do them. Or as the same close advisor puts it: "You can't have three people trying to get their hands on the steering wheel."

The other two would be Mario Dumont, leader of the Action démocratique du Québec and currently leader of the opposition in the minority legislature, and Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois. The two opposition leaders ganged up on Charest last week to elect a PQ candidate to be Speaker, totally blindsiding the Premier who had a candidate of his own. Two days later, Charest turned the tables on Dumont by announcing the defection of two ADQ legislators to the Liberal caucus. The floor crossings reduced Dumont's hold on official opposition to a slender margin of just two seats, 39-37, over the PQ. And it's well known that some of Dumont's more nationalist members are being courted by the Péquistes.

After a dignified year of "cohabitation" among the three parties, the current session of the legislature has turned toxic. In those terms, Charest might as well call an election since, in the face of a grave economic crisis requiring serious solutions, the legislature instead resembles an unruly boarding school.

There is certain to be a nasty voter backlash over an election call, especially one so close on the heels of the unnecessary federal vote, not to mention the likely Dec. 8 date interfering with Christmas. Charest will need to get in front of the blowback with a clear and convincing case that serious times require strong leadership, and that he is seeking "a new Quebec consensus." Quebecers are very responsive to calls for solidarity, provided they are perceived as authentic.

Charest has also assured his caucus that unlike the last campaign, he will actually show up for this one. And the Liberal caucus, especially in the regions, shares his sense that bad times are around the corner in 2009, and that they best go while Quebec still has its lowest unemployment rate in three decades, and before plant closings and layoffs hit trade-sensitive manufacturing industries as they already have in the forestry sector.

There's still time to stop the train, but it's all up to the conductor now. And over the weekend, Charest cancelled his scheduled trip to China this Friday as part of a premiers' trade mission.

It's on.

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