He never thought it would be easy. A testy Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest readily conceded that much last week during his party's shaky run up to the provincial election campaign. By Wednesday, when Premier Lucien Bouchard announced the Nov. 30 vote,
Charest had spent days in a defensive mode, cut off at the knees by Ottawa on the constitutional issue, his party sagging in the polls. But hours after the election call, the former federal Conservative leader seemed back in form doing what he does best—campaigning. Addressing party supporters in a packed suburban Montreal hall, he kicked off the Liberals’ campaign by mocking the Parti Québécois government’s slogan—“I have confidence in a Bouchard government.” Drawing laughs, Charest attacked the PQ’s handling of the economy and health care, as well as the party’s ambiguous referendum stance, punctuating his barbs with a sardonic dig at Bouchard: “Trust me.” Invoking the spirit of the Quiet Revolution, which modernized the province during the 1960s, Charest declared: “I’m telling you that these years must return, that we can do things differently—we can get off the beaten path.”
Change versus the status quo. That is how the Liberals want to cast the choice facing Quebecers.
With a bold economic platform that positions the party to the right, and a promise to improve the beleaguered health-care system, the Liberals are trying to present themselves as the force needed to push Quebec out of its economic malaise. But they face a tough battle getting that message across. And it was all but lost on the eve of the election call amid the ruckus stirred up by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in an interview published on Oct. 24 by La Presse.
Chrétien infuriated Charest’s Liberals by telling the Montreal newspaper that Quebec’s traditional demands had been met and that the Constitution is not “a general store.”
The timing of the comments, which brought a gleeful reaction from Bouchard, sparked an uproar in Ottawa and prompted widespread speculation about Chrétien’s motives. According to some observers, Chrétien may want the PQ to win the election—on the assumption that Bouchard will never be strong enough to win a subsequent referendum. A victorious Charest, on the other hand, would be in a position to demand decentralizing changes to the Canadian federation. “That’s totally false,” said Peter Donolo, Chrétien’s communications director. “There is no reason that we want Bouchard taking his wrecking ball to Canada any longer, when we could have someone instead who believes in Canada.” Some Chrétien advisers privately acknowledged that the statements had been a political error. Officials were divided on whether to grant La Presse the interview, and in the end decided, as Donolo says, to “honor a commitment” made previously. Whatever the
rationale, the fallout forced the Quebec Liberals on the defensive before they even left the gate, depriving them—at least temporarily—of a tactical advantage. Charest was poised to seize on Quebecers’ referendum fatigue and to score points over the PQ’s fuzzy referendum policy (Bouchard has promised to hold another vote but only if “winning conditions” exist). Instead, he found himself responding to Chrétien’s remarks. “He handicaps us,” complained one angry Charest adviser last week. ‘When Quebecers hear this hardline stuff from Chrétien, it drives them to Bouchard.” Predictably, the premier pounced on Chrétien’s comments as proof that there is no hope for constitutional change. He also continued trying to position himself as the best defender of Quebec’s interests. Perhaps emboldened by the tension in the federalist camp, Bouchard delivered a referendum-style speech pitching sovereignty on the second day of the campaign. At the same time, Charest also toughened his tone, suggesting Chrétien should consider quitting if he becomes “the immovable obstacle” to change in the federation. Robert Bernier, a professor of social and political
marketing at the school of public administration of the Université du Québec à Montréal, says it is too early to judge whether Charest scored points with soft nationalists. Still, according to Bernier, Charest firmly staked out new territory by saying: “I’m here to represent Quebecers and nobody will stand in front of me.” Charest’s Liberals, who currently hold 45 seats in the national assembly compared with 74 for the PQ, were on the defensive on other fronts as well. Their economic platform steers the party more to the right by calling for $2.5 billion in tax cuts and a reduced role for the state in the province’s economy. Although some pundits have praised the Liberals, they also call it a risky move. “There’s not a critical mass of right-wing people in Quebec,” contends Jean Lapierre, the host of a popular Montreal radio show. “That’s why it’s a big gamble.” Charest had predicted that the platform would prompt a strong reaction—and he wasn’t mistaken. The PQ continued to slam the proposals, likening them to the model adopted by Ontario’s Conservative Premier Mike Harris. In one speech, Bouchard said the Liberal platform would mean “a complete freeze
on compassion in Quebec,” and referred to Harris and Ontario more than 40 times in an attempt to position the PQ as a kinder, gentler party—despite his government’s years of steep deficit slashing.
Publicly, Liberals remain upbeat about their prospects. Marc-André Blanchard, the head of the liberals’ policy commission, maintains that explaining the new policy to voters is a challenge the Liberals can meet, and that Charest is the right person to do it. “When we say that a family that earns $50,000 pays about $1,156 more tax than in Ontario, that’s very concrete for average families,” said Blanchard. But one Liberal MNA acknowledged that the Harris label hurts. And the difficult sales job is exacerbated by the brief campaign—at 33 days the shortest in Quebec history. “Charest must try to sell his platform in a very short period of time,” says Bernier. “And until now he hasn’t succeeded.” Bernier, who has conducted several studies in the past two years for the federal government on Quebecers’ attitudes, contends that many voters are open to Charest’s ideas. But, he adds, “They aren’t ready to cross the bridge because up until now the platform hasn’t been well explained.”
A poll by Montreal-based CROP Inc., released last week, did not offer much encouragement for the Liberals. It showed a continuing slide in support for the party and a drop in Charest’s personal popularity—only 29 per cent of respondents picked him as the best leader for the province, compared with 41 per cent for Bouchard. “It’s as if he hasn’t proved himself yet—and he doesn’t have a lot of time to do that,” says Claude Gauthier, vice-president of CROP. According to Gauthier, the poll numbers—45 per cent for the Liberals compared with 44 per cent for PQ—would spell a PQ victory because the party’s support is more evenly spread out across the province than that of the Liberals. (A second poll, conducted by Léger & Léger after the election call and released on the weekend, showed the PQ with a slight lead: 47.5 per cent compared with 46.2 per cent for the Liberals.)
Other observers say there are issues the Liberals can capitalize on. According to Christian Bourque, a senior research director at the Angus Reid Group Inc. in Montreal, many undecided voters are women over the age of 40. “The key for Charest is to hammer on health care because these are the exact same people who are most critical on that issue,” says Bourque. In fact, the Liberals have attacked the PQ for months over their $1.7 billion in cuts to the system—and repeated last week that health care is a top priority. Whether that will be enough to help dispel the callous portrait the PQ is trying to paint of the Liberals’ platform is open to question. Charest and Bouchard have already cast the election as the most important political battle of their lives. Both know that the short campaign will only heighten the tension. “It will put all the emphasis on the leaders,” predicts Bourque. It also leaves virtually no room for error, as the Liberals try to iron out the wrinkles in their campaign to unseat the incumbent PQ—and its popular premier. □
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