SPECIAL REPORT

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

Charest is betting that a hard right turn will revive the Tories

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 31 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

Charest is betting that a hard right turn will revive the Tories

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 31 1997

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

SPECIAL REPORT

Charest is betting that a hard right turn will revive the Tories

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Even those people who dislike the Progressive Conservatives have had to acknowledge something recently: in several ways, the Tories have become leaner—and possibly meaner. Three months ago, party leader Jean Charest was at a reception in his Sherbrooke riding when he made a joke about his ballooning weight. One of the people who heard the remark was a physical education teacher, who offered to act as Charest’s personal trainer. Now, due to a combination of diet and daily exercise, he has lost 26 lb.—and, in fact, is down more than 44 from his peak of 220 lb. three years ago. “I feel,” he said in an interview last week, “the best I have in about 15 years.”

Still, much the same talk was heard before the 1993 election—which Charest won by 8,210 votes even as the Tories were almost wiped off the electoral map elsewhere. And, says pollster Jean-Marc Léger, president of Montreal-based Léger & Léger Inc., Charest remains easily the most popular profederalist politician in Quebec. As a result, Léger says, he would be “very surprised” if Charest did notwin his seat. “Quebecers,” says Léger, “think he is sincere, articulate, and a representative of Quebec they can be proud of.”

The Liberals, both federal and provincial, have recognized that. Charest, who keeps a signed picture on his office wall of himself with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, worked closely with both men during the 1995 referendum campaign. But he felt snubbed by Chrétien on referendum night, when the Prime Minister did not wait for Charest to finish his speech from Montreal before beginning his own remarks in Ottawa. That deprived Charest of an adequate national television forum on a crucial occasion. Since then, he has often bitterly criticized Chrétien and his approach to Quebec. “The Prime Minister,” says Charest, “does not understand that Quebecers are tired of old rivalries and want something new.”

Meanwhile, the Tory leader’s reputation in his home province represents a dilemma for both the

So much for lean. As for mean, that aspectis contained in the aggressive, anti-Big Government program that Charest unveiled last week in Toronto. It promises tax cuts, the dismantling of whole federal departments, and mass reductions in the number of civil servants. The result is the most stridently right-wing Tory platform of modern times—in spite of its promise to boost health-care spending. That approach may win votes outside Quebec, but in his home province Charest faces another challenge: selling himself and the merits of federalism to a skeptical audience. It will not come easily, starting with the battle to retain his own seat. A majority of voters in Sherbrooke supported the Yes side in the 1995 sovereignty referendum, and Bloc Québécois supporters say their internal polls indicate that they lead the riding—even though a BQ candidate has yet to be nominated.

Liberals and the BQ. If a strong Liberal challenge in Sherbrooke were to unseat Charest, the federalist side would see the credibility of its best speaker severely damaged—with another referendum still ahead. (A strong Liberal candidate might also split the federalist vote, and allow the Bloc candidate to win.) Bloc organizers face their own quandary. Although they would dearly like to defeat the Tory leader, they risk embarrassment if they put too much effort into the riding—and lose. As well, some sovereigntists fear that a loss might tempt Charest to enter provincial politics—where he would likely be a far more formidable opponent than Johnson. Now, both parties are playing a waiting game. If the Liberals name a strong candidate, the Bloc will follow suit, say sources in the riding. But if the Liberals mount only a perfunctory campaign, the BQ will do the same. That, at this point, is most likely.

Still, Charest’s popularity is unlikely to help other Tories get elected in Quebec—despite his prediction last week that his party will win “a majority” of the province’s 75 seats. “We are,” says one Tory organizer glumly, “in worse shape now than we were under Joe Clark.” Today, Conservative support in Quebec stands at about 10 per cent of committed voters, which presents Charest with his own dilemma: how much time to spend campaigning in Quebec. Publicly, he insists that he will go all out. Privately, though, Tory insiders say most of Charest’s campaign in Quebec is likely to be centred in Montreal—for national media purposes—and his home riding, at the expense of the rest of the province. After all, a slimmed-down leader leading an emaciated party must be wary of spreading himself too thin.