THE NATION’S BUSINESS

How the referendum has spawned a leader

Freed from the ridicule that attends his tiny Commons caucus, PC leader Jean Charest has emerged as an attractive national figure

Peter C. Newman October 9 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

How the referendum has spawned a leader

Freed from the ridicule that attends his tiny Commons caucus, PC leader Jean Charest has emerged as an attractive national figure

Peter C. Newman October 9 1995

How the referendum has spawned a leader

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

PETER C. NEWMAN

Freed from the ridicule that attends his tiny Commons caucus, PC leader Jean Charest has emerged as an attractive national figure

Nothing is more lethal in helping destroy the credibility of a political leader than becoming the butt of unkind jokes. (Ask Joe Clark.) It is no surprise, therefore, that a revival of the chestnut about three passengers on a doomed airplane is sweeping Quebec’s pubs and salons these days. In this version, Jacques Parizeau decides to fly to a remote village on the Gaspé Peninsula to sell the Yes side of the referendum. Aboard his chartered jet there is the elderly parish priest who will be introducing him at the rally, and a teenage hiker who is hitching a ride back to his native village. The engines quit and, as the three passengers gather around the escape hatch, they realize there are only two parachutes.

Parizeau harrumphs a couple of times, then declares that as “the most important man in Quebec,” he must be saved. Shouting, “Vive le Québec libre!” he makes the jump.

The priest then turns to the boy and says: “My son, I have lived a full life while yours is still ahead of you, so, please, take the other parachute. I am quite content with my fate.” “No, it’s OK, Father,” replies the kid, cheerfully. “We still have two parachutes. When ‘the most important man in Quebec’ rushed out of here, he grabbed my knapsack on his way out the hatch!”

Not much of a joke, but a telling indication of how Quebec’s political mood is changing. But then, it’s not easy to be serious about a governing party that assigns the pivotal responsibility for the research studies supposed to determine how an independent Quebec would operate to an addle-brained minister like Richard Le Hir, who releases only those papers he likes. Where are the Rhinos when we need them?

In fact, few federalist leaders are emerging from this debate with any kudos. Preston Manning has been revealed for what he is: a two-bit opportunist who puts his ambitions — ahead of his country. Jean Chrétien contin-

ues to show no leadership, relying on the fact that he may well be the luckiest politician since Plato invented democracy. Daniel Johnson has been thrust by history into a role he can barely fill.

The only politician who has advanced his status throughout the referendum debate has been Jean Charest. Freed from the ridicule that attends his miniscule Commons caucus, and now a leader of a federalist cause that has always been his mission, he has emerged as an attractive national figure with an unlimited future.

A minor minister during the early Mulroney years, Charest rose to prominence with his handling of the parliamentary committee that examined the Meech Lake accord, just before its collapse in June of 1990. That job gave him a chance to observe raw politics at the summit, and his friendship with Lucien Bouchard (who once acted as his mentor) taught him a harsh lesson about how little loyalty counts at those perilous heights. In the 1993 federal election, aware that Charest’s appeal was far more potent than hers, prime minister Kim Campbell refused to allow him to campaign nationally. He withstood the Bloc Québécois

tide in his home province, and despite attractive offers from the private sector, decided to hang in. “The main reason I chose to stay,” he told me last week, “was because I anticipated the referendum, and it didn’t make a lot of sense after what I’d been through to leave and not be on the ice when that happened.”

His role in the campaign is deliberately ambiguous, because the Liberals stage managing the No side don’t want to give him the kind of exposure that would allow him to outshine their own leaders. But Jean Chrétien has opted out of the day-to-day combat, and Daniel Johnson doesn’t have the charisma. That has elevated Charest’s profile, and he has made the most of it.

“No amount of manipulation can hide the real and dramatic consequences of a Yes vote,” he is telling voters across Quebec. “Whatever kind of candy coating they put on, it still comes out tasting like the traditional Jacques Parizeau sticky bun. The separatists will never be able to disguise the real risks of independence. Parizeau and Bouchard, for whom overlap and duplication are a cardinal sin, have promised to rehire all the federal servants working in Quebec. And they are guaranteeing us access to an economic market from which we will have just separated!”

Unlike most federalists, Charest doesn’t rely on facts and figures to make his case. “People pay no attention to figures, no matter who puts them on the table,” he says. “In the end, the only way to win decisively is if we are able to emphasize to Quebecers the strong link they have in their hearts for Canada, which I am convinced is there, and has always been there.” The most moving part of his presentation occurs when he stops talking, reaches into his pocket, and brings out his blue Canadian passport. “If you vote Yes,” he intones, holding the document in front of him as if it were a chalice, “you’re putting your passport on the table, giving your passport to Jacques Parizeau, in exchange for what?”

Another effective ploy has been to read a quote which, he confides, comes from someone who understands well to what point Canadian federalism has been beneficial for Quebecers. He then rattles off a lengthy shopping list of successes by Quebec entrepreneurs and entertainers, praising their accomplishments, culminating with the anonymous speaker’s concluding thought: “I will repeat myself—in Quebec, success is no longer the exception, it’s the rule.”

The anonymous speaker, Charest reveals, was Jacques Parizeau, who made these remarks to a Montreal business audience as premier on Nov. 15, 1994. Then, he makes the point that Parizeau’s description is a long way from the PQ’s current attempts to color Quebec as being populated by oppressed victims of federalism, desperate for liberation.

At the moment, no other federalist can match Jean Charest for guts and effectiveness in the struggle for Quebec’s—and Canada’s—future.