The Nation's Business

Jean Charest: a true profile in courage

The Quebec Liberal leader offers tax cuts, deregulation and privatization that would transform the province

Peter C. Newman November 2 1998
The Nation's Business

Jean Charest: a true profile in courage

The Quebec Liberal leader offers tax cuts, deregulation and privatization that would transform the province

Peter C. Newman November 2 1998

Jean Charest: a true profile in courage

The Nation's Business

Peter C. Newman

The Quebec Liberal leader offers tax cuts, deregulation and privatization that would transform the province

It is the ultimate irony of the looming Quebec election that the most revolutionary platform is that of Jean Charest, not of Lucien Bouchard.

The premier has come out squarely for the tried-andtrue tactic of pledging to hold yet another referendum on independence by 2001. “I am convinced that Quebecers have a rendezvous with their sovereigntist future and that sovereignty is an inevitable part of the future of Quebec,” he declared last week, firmly tying his flag to a 19th-century platform in a 21st-century world.

Predictably, the Canadian dollar immediately plunged on the expectation that the dreary round of exhortations for Quebec to go it alone was about to be repeated, dragging down what little viability remains in the Quebec economy.

The Liberal leader, on the other hand, has pushed his party into a contemporary mode that would complete the original Quiet Revolution of Jean Lesage by modernizing Quebec’s economy. Charest has the courage of his conviction that what has prevented Quebec from realizing a viable future is the threat of breaking away from Canada and becoming a closed society in an increasingly globalized world. He knows that international investors will shy away from the province given that circumstance because, as every economist agrees, sovereignty would bring with it capital flights as severe as those currently devastating Brazil.

That, in turn, would require capital and exchange controls that would prevent, not only Quebec investors, but ordinary citizens from taking out their funds.

The global moneymen could care less about Canada’s dubious future without Quebec, but they can smell the likely creation of a banana republic on the St. Lawrence if Lucien Bouchard has his way, and want no part of it.

Charest’s platform is being compared to the radical agenda that allowed Mike Harris to win power in Ontario three years ago, but Quebec’s circumstances are vastly different. Unlike Ontario, where politics is still a game, Quebec’s separatist obsession, dating back to René Lévesque’s first election in 1976, has inflicted massive damage on the province’s economy. Because it has driven away investors, Quebec’s taxes are among the highest in North America. The separatist pretensions of Parti Québécois governments have lowered the province’s credit ratings so steeply that interest premiums on public sector borrowing are higher even than Newfoundland’s.

Charest’s electoral crusade will aim to level the playing field. It’s less political than economic, giving Quebecers a chance to compete with other jurisdictions for the capital investment that must drive any prosperous society. His platform of carefully co-ordinated tax cuts, deregulation of the public sector, and privatization of Quebec’s top-heavy, government-owned enterprises would transform the

province’s infrastructure. That kind of radical stance requires more political courage than Bouchard’s retread calls for breaking up the country. Only the diehard nationalists still nurture thoughts of reviving the hazy dreams of past glories, snuffed out on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

The PQ’s best chance of winning is the distinct possibility that Charest’s momentum will be undercut by Jean Chrétien, who wants to save the country alone, though his performance on the issue almost produced the opposite. The Prime Minister is still smarting from Charest’s successful grassroots campaign in the 1995 referendum when he rallied the federalist troops while every Chrétien appearance hurt the cause. Around that time, the federal Liberal leader kept insisting that “for Quebec to separate would be completely illegal and unconstitutional,” a dubious stand that has since been challenged by the Supreme Court.

(Chrétien’s style of running the country, incidentally, was echoed last week when Calgary socialite Dorothy Joudrie was granted an absolute discharge. Joudrie had repeatedly shot her estranged husband, Earl, three years ago and was charged with attempted murder. Her lawyers had won her acquittal, we were reminded, by insisting that, at the time, she had been functioning “in a robot-like trance” and wasn’t really aware of what was going on: the perfect description of the Chrétien government.)

The next month will test Charest’s political skills and decide his future. If he wins and emerges as the savior of the country, he could return to his first love, federal politics, and become Canada’s next prime minister under almost any ticket he chooses. If he loses, he is toast.

Charest knows all that and will surprise voters with the strength of his appeal. No matter how sensible his platform may be, Charest knows that elections are not won by logic. “People pay no attention to figures, no matter who puts them on the table,” he once told me. “I have 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. No amount of manipulation can hide the dramatic consequences of a vote for the PQ and independence. Whatever kind of candy coating they put on it, it still comes out tasting like the traditional Jacques Parizeau sticky bun.”

Good point. In the weird calculus of Quebec politics, the former PQ premier will no doubt emerge as the federalist’s ace-in-thehole. The indomitable Jacques will be there, right on cue, blowing through his moustache, doing his damnedest to sabotage Lucien at every turn. As somebody once noted, Parizeau has his foot in his mouth so often that he only stops talking long enough to change feet.

Still, it’s a thin straw on which to hang a country’s future.