Although Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest are both veteran parliamentarians and Quebecers with many mutual acquaintances, it was not until shortly after the October, 1993, federal election that they had their first lengthy conversation. “I bumped into him in the House of Commons one day and he told me to come up and visit him some time,” Charest recalled recently. He accepted the prime minister’s invitation, and the two men spent more than an hour over coffee in Chrétien’s office discussing the similarities between Chrétien’s leadership campaign in 1984, when he lost to John Turner, and Charest’s 1993 loss to Kim Campbell. In both cases, they lost at the ballot box, but won the hearts of most party members.
And Charest learned something else: “I liked the guy,” he said of Chrétien, “a lot more than I thought I would.”
Similarly, Chrétien, who publicly described Charest as “my friend” last week, told acquaintances how impressed he was.
Now, in the wake of Monday’s razor-thin referendum result, their relationship takes on crucial new importance for the entire country.
Charest emerged as the uncontested star in an otherwise badly flawed federalist campaign, and as the one Non voice capable of striking an emotional chord with Quebecers.
Because of that, some senior Liberals believe, one of Chrétien’s first post-referendum steps should be to take whatever steps are necessary to bring Charest into the government at a senior level. That, they acknowledge, would probably mean accepting him as a member of a “government of national reconciliation,” in which he would not be asked to renounce his Tory roots, and with the understanding that he would probably eventually leave if and when the issue of Quebec’s future is more properly resolved. One possible title: minister of governmental reform, with a mandate to work alongside Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé in negotiating change with all provinces.
The virtues are clear: Charest is an able negotiator and experienced constitutionalist who in 1990 did a good job chairing a committee which attempted to save the Meech Lake accord. His overall beliefs—hawkish on the need for spending cuts, and dovish on the need for strong social programs—are close to those of many Liberals. In addition to being liked in Quebec, Charest is particularly close to two leaders who will have crucial roles in any future changes to the role of the provinces: Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Alberta’s Ralph Klein.
The potential problems are mostly partisan ones. Some liberal cabinet ministers would deeply resent the presence of any outsider—especially one with the leadership qualities of Charest Even though liberal and Tory policies on many issues appear identical, their political cultures are very different. Few of Chrétien’s inner circle would welcome an intruder whose power would challenge their own, and some of the handful of remaining Tories across the country would be horrified at the idea of their leader sleeping with the traditional enemy. But desperate I times call for unusu| al measures, and
0 Canadians, faced
1 with an imminent plunge into a constitutional abyss, will demand something more from their political leaders than the usual partisan concerns. Charest needs a position of authority appropriate to his abilities—and a credible platform from which to challenge Lucien Bouchard head-on in the clash that is inevitable. Chrétien, for all his strengths, desperately needs a fresh eye, ear and policy for Quebec. “When it comes to Canada,” Charest told a No rally in the dying days of the campaign, “the Prime Minister and I walk on the same side of the street every time.” Monday’s vote should mark the beginning, rather than the end, of their promenade together. They have constitutional promises to keep—and miles to go before Canadians can sleep.
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