Backstage

Jean Charest: Staying on (for now)

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 1 1997
Backstage

Jean Charest: Staying on (for now)

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 1 1997

Jean Charest: Staying on (for now)

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

American writer Elbert Hubbard observed: “A conservative is a man who is too cowardly to fight and too fat to run.” As political punditry, the remark bears repeating only because it demonstrates how easy it is to be glib, succinct and demonstrably wrong, all in a single sentence. Consider, for example, Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest. Call him what you will—and political opponents have done that repeatedly in the past 13 years—but after the vigor he displayed through four election campaigns, a leadership race and two Quebec constitutional referendums, few can question his willingness to fight. And in the wake of a demanding diet-and-exercise regimen that has seen him shed 45 lb. over the past year, the only visible hip left in his physical appearance is his taste for cutting-edge suits.

All of which is a good thing, because as the House of Commons appears poised to begin its first post-election session later this month, Charest faces the most challenging time of any of the five party leaders. Enough so that although the Tories increased their number of seats tenfold—from two to 20—in the June 2 election, there have been rumors through the summer in party circles that Charest will leave politics within the next year for the private sector. In fact, Charest, who returned last week from a month in Italy and a week in France with his family, concedes that in the period before he left, he thought of resigning “once a day.” He was, he says, “exhausted—not just from the campaign, but from the 3 V2 years of work and travel every week leading up to that.”

Moreover, the Tories’ disappointing showing outside of the Atlantic provinces and Quebec—winning only two seats in the rest of the country—provided little solace. But after what Charest describes as his first proper vacation in 12 years, thoughts of departing politics have been put aside—for now. “I’m around,” said Charest in an interview last week, “and I’m committed to being around. No other alternative is being considered.”

In the ever-nuanced vocabulary of politics, that assertion amounts to far less than a guarantee that he will lead the Tories through a full mandate and into another election. Few senior Tories expect him to do so. “It would be easy,” says one longtime party organizer, “to excuse him if he got a chance to make a ton of money with some law firm in a couple of years, and took it.” But it is also clear that for as long as he stays in Ottawa, Charest remains clearly focused on such issues as the survival of his party, his unconcealed dislike of the Reform party and Preston Manning, and his increasingly sharp criticisms of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s handling of the unity issue. ‘You cannot let a country sleepwalk over a cliff,” he says, “but that is what is happening with no leadership in Ottawa.”

This week, Charest returns to Ottawa for a three-day meeting of the new caucus. The session will include advice on specific policy issues and a primer on how MPs should conduct themselves, with briefings by people including former senior civil servant Glen Shortliffe, former Brian Mulroney adviser Hugh Segal, and onetime cabinet ministers Barbara McDougall and Jim Edwards.

One paradox is that on a superficial level, the Tories’ situation appears better than it really is. Since they have more than 12 seats, the Tories again have official party status, an opportunity to ask questions every day in the House of Commons, and access to the funds that allow parties to hire researchers and additional staff. Their continued strong presence in the Senate gives them additional support staff. “Now,” Charest says, “we will have the minimum of tools we need.”

Before leaving for a five-week vacation in Europe, he only thought about resigning ‘once a day’

And Charest—as leader of a recognized party—now gets an additional $30,000 in annual salary on top of the $64,400 he receives as an MP, and access to a chauffeur and car. He and his family may now be able to move up and out of the cramped three-bedroom townhouse in Hull that they bought more than a decade ago.

That is the good news. On the other side of the ledger, the Tories are the smallest of the five parties in the House of Commons: that will be reflected in the small amount of public exposure they get, and hamper fund-raising efforts. Because most MPs are newcomers, they will begin with low profiles and inevitably make mistakes that will haunt them. In Ontario, where the Tories placed most of their hopes and won only one seat, bad feeling lingers between federal and provincial Tory organizers: federal Tories thought the campaign too right-wing, and provincial Tories thought it not enough. Meanwhile, most of their support came from the Atlantic provinces—where voters wanted to punish the Liberals for previous spending cuts, and saw the Tories as their traditional alternative.

All of that leaves Charest in much the same position as, say, a hockey superstar like Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs: at a time when both men should be at the peak of their careers, they are stuck leading long-established but low-ranked teams, with no immediate chance to become a contender. But with training camp approaching, a hockey player such as Sundin can always request a trade—and take comfort in a multimillion-dollar salary. Charest has neither opportunity—only, instead, a summer spent staying in shape by jogging. Of that activity, he says: “I just hate it because it’s boring as heck, and it lacks any specific sense of purpose.” The Tories must hope that Charest will not decide— at least too soon—that the same description now applies to his political career.