Columns

Jean Charest's political baggage

Peter C. Newman March 16 1998
Columns

Jean Charest's political baggage

Peter C. Newman March 16 1998

Jean Charest's political baggage

The Nation's Business

Peter C. Newman

What’s the problem? It’s so simple. Jean Charest switches parties, goes provincial and, ZAP, Canada is saved. Well, maybe not quite that simple. Consider the fate of the Conservatives, one of Canada’s founding political parties, which, without Charest’s dedicated leadership, would vanish. The only viable replacement for Charest would be Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. I remember asking him whether he would consider such a possibility, while having dinner with him and his wife Colleen about a year ago. He hemmed and hawed a bit, but Colleen cut in and said: “Well, Ralph can go if he wants, but it will be without me, and I suppose he can come visit on weekends.”

Writing off that possibility would give Canadians a gloomy choice: either to perpetuate the Liberals in power as a permanent dictatorship, acting as benevolently as it feels on any given day. Or hand power to Preston Manning’s shock troops who would do away with the last shreds of compassion remaining in Ottawa’s increasingly stingy set of priorities.

This is the dilemma weighing down Charest as he faces the mounting pressures to succeed Daniel Johnson as leader of the No forces in Quebec. Those opportunistic advisers and political groupies urging Charest to go for it forget that he really is a Conservative. You don’t run for the Tories in Sherbrooke, which has voted Liberal 15 times in the 19 federal elections prior to Charest’s first victory in 1984, unless you’re a true believer.

Two years later, Brian Mulroney made him minister of state for youth (appropriately, since Charest was 28 and the youngest federal cabinet minister in Canadian history). In 1990, Charest was fired for making a harmless but inadvisable call to a judge, and again he was forced to ponder his future as a Tory. He decided to stick around and returned to cabinet a year later as environment minister.

In 1993, after Mulroney left and the coronation of Kim Campbell as the new leader seemed like a done deal, Charest had to be persuaded to stand for the leadership. He ran for the good of the party. He knew it was a lost cause, but felt that a contest would demonstrate that the leadership was a still a prize worth winning. In the end, he came surprisingly close and staked his future in the party.

When he was one of only two MPs elected in the September, 1993, federal election, that devastating result forced him yet again to consider whether it was worth his while to hang in. He did, and in the 1997 campaign improved his party’s standing to 20 seats. But the Tories remained in fifth place and he was unable to carve out a real power base, because he made yards only in the Atlantic provinces

Past policies on federal standards for secondary education and free trade within Canada are no-nos in Quebec as a protest vote against the Liberal government, which had made it harder to qualify for pogey. Any question that Charest is a true-blue Tory was dispelled by his 1997 election platform. He advocated lowering personal income taxes by 10 per cent and making spending cuts of $6.6 billion to pay for that tax relief. Significantly, he also pledged to reassert federal authority by forcing provinces to sign enforceable internal free trade agreements. At the same time, he was adamant about pushing Ottawa into the provincially sacrosanct territory, especially in Quebec, of secondary education, including national testing and strict academic standard-setting. After last year’s election, Charest again had to sit back and wonder if his party’s future should continue to determine his own, and de-

cided to hang in for one more round. A major motivation at each defining moment has been Charest’s genuine dedication to his cause. Now, he is supposed to abandon it, change parties like a dirty shirt, and jump into the provincial cockpit, fighting Lucien Bouchard on his home territory. It’s a tough assignment. It’s not tough because Charest couldn’t beat Bouchard. In fact, the Parti Québécois is eminently beatable. In the rush to usher Daniel Johnson out of sight and out of mind, people have forgotten that even with his charisma meter stuck at zero in the 1994 provincial election, he came within 15,000 ballots of defeating Jacques Parizeau, who was then an upbeat and popular figure. A year later, as leader of the No forces in the second referendum—and despite apparent ballot stuffing by the PQ— Johnson won against Bouchard at the top of his form, although narrowly. Despite these slim margins, Johnson has had the misfortune of being perceived as a loser, just like Joe

Clark, who couldn’t set the world on fire except by accident. I interviewed Johnson last spring and found him surprisingly tough, especially on the subject of the Prime Minister. “If Chrétien doesn’t take into account the present-day realities of Quebec, he will be Canada’s last prime minister. The choice is his.” And that describes the problem that Charest would have as Quebec Liberal leader. His main protagonist would not be Lucien, but Jean. You can’t win a provincial election in Quebec by being a federalist pussycat. Charest, like Johnson before him, would have to take on the feds and bash them around a bit. Chances are that Chrétien would retaliate in the same way he did with Johnson, and cut the political ground out from under him.

Assigning Charest yet another Mission Impossible may be asking too much. Why not switch to the candidate whom the separatists fear most: Guy Bertrand, the onetime sovereigntist who has caught the public’s fancy with his brave constitutional challenges.

That would be the ideal showdown, and would allow Lucien Bouchard to retire gracefully. Well, retire anyway.