COVER

Ready to Run

Will Jean Charest take on Lucien Bouchard?

BRUCE WALLACE March 16 1998
COVER

Ready to Run

Will Jean Charest take on Lucien Bouchard?

BRUCE WALLACE March 16 1998

Ready to Run

COVER

Will Jean Charest take on Lucien Bouchard?

BRUCE WALLACE

Tt is not as if the idea of jumping to provincial politics to battle the separatist dragon on its own turf had never occurred to Jean Charest. The Christmas season of 1996, at home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, was made almost unbearable by the Magog mafia—those powerful Quebec big-business hitters who own weekend retreats in the rolling hills southeast of Montreal. They would pin him to the wall at cocktail parties, pressing him to come home to lead the provincial Liberals. The job is not open, he would point out in defence, and no one was about to suggest to Charest that he sponsor a putsch against the much-derided but well-ensconced Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson.

But that was before last June’s federal election, when what was supposed to be Charest’s run to the glory of Official Opposition collapsed in the campaign’s late stages. The disappointing fifthplace result sank Charest into despondency about his future on the national stage. During a summer vacation in Europe with his wife, Michèle Dionne, and on into the first weeks of the new Parliament, he again reflected on other career options—including the possibility of jumping to provincial politics. As late as December, Charest was still hearing plaintive wails for help from Quebec Liberals, but by then he had finally resolved to stay in federal politics. He reassured skeptical senior Tories his commitment was firm. In case people did not believe him, he decided to move the family from Hull, Que., to a new home in a leafy Ottawa neighborhood. And just to be on the safe side, he and Michèle skipped most of Magog’s social whirl last Christmas.

How awful, then, the timing of Johnson’s unexpected resignation last week as leader of the Quebec Liberal party. In the days before the announcement, Charest was among the very few who heard rumblings from Quebec that Johnson was rethinking his own pledge to stay to fight the next provincial election, almost certain to be held this fall. When Johnson called Charest on March 1 to confirm he would indeed step down the next day, the 39-year-old Tory leader realized immediately how the political ground had just slid from underneath him. As he told friends during the stormy days that followed, he felt as if control over his political destiny had been wrenched from his grip.

The nub of Charest’s dilemma is simple. He makes no secret of his dislike for the narrow, nasty intimacy of Quebec provincial politics. He has played on the larger national stage since coming to Ottawa as a 26-year-old in Brian Mulroney’s 1984 landslide, and he has no desire to shrink his horizons. The federal Tory party is his political family, a sentiment shared by Michèle. He knows where its skeletons are stuffed away, and gets satisfaction in running his own show. But his hold on the party leadership is founded, disproportionately, on one skill: his ability to be a passionate advocate for Canada to Quebecers—a role he played brilliantly in the 1995 referendum and 1997 federal election. It brings money and popular support from Quebec to a shaky Tory party that is desperately in need of both.

Charest knows—and was being told last week in rather blunt terms by his own supporters in Quebec, just in case he missed the point—that his support would shrivel if he spurns the provincial Liberal leadership. How could he expect to be listened to seriously in any future referendum, it was asked in Quebec circles, once he passed on the job of being titular head of the federalist forces in the province? He would be forever dismissed as the man who put his own interests ahead of the country’s, who was offered an encounter with history—and passed. “Is he ready to be a has-been at 39?” was how one Charest sympathizer in Quebec put it last week. And so Charest faced the wrenching prospect of taking on a job he did not want, or remaining in Ottawa as a wounded federal leader—of whom it would always be asked: “What might have been?”

The hurricane that enveloped Charest last week blew up with almost unseemly haste after Johnson’s announcement. The political class barely paused to eulogize the outgoing leader’s career before the clamor for Charest to replace him began. Charest had already scheduled one of those sleep-depriving, bad-diet weeks that only the most devoted federal politicians endure: bouncing from southern Ontario to Alberta and back to Newfoundland to meet the Tory flock. He thought he would have at least a day’s grace before having to deflect the first entreaties about the Quebec post. He barely had an hour. “At the present time, there is nothing that would change

my mind,” he told reporters and a national TV audience at a hastily assembled scrum in a Toronto hotel shortly after Johnson’s departure. He repeated the line with varying degrees of inflection over the next few days. “Where can I be most effective?” he asked rhetorically on a phone-in show in Calgary. “As things stand now, I see that it is in the job I have now.”

All everyone focused on, of course, were the qualifiers. With the door left temptingly ajar, discussions among those petitioning him to leave federal politics centred on how the move might be successfully orchestrated. The greatest concern revolved around how the pressure from outside Quebec threatened to burden Charest with the baggage of being English Canada’s candidate. Every time a federal cabinet minister waxed on about what a wonderful idea a Charest move would be, each time a talk show host gushed over him (or, like Calgary’s Dave Rutherford, draped a Canadian flag around his shoulders), Charest’s job of positioning himself for Quebec consumption got tougher. Provincial politicians must, if nothing else, be seen to defend Quebec’s interests against outside threats.

Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard certainly gave Charest a taste of the treatment he could expect from the Parti Québécois government. “I hope my adversary will be chosen by the supporters of the Quebec Liberal party and not by the Privy Council in Ottawa and not by the people of Ontario or by petitions from the West,” said Bouchard. The attack was predictable, but underscored the sense among Charest’s supplicants that the welcome signals had to come from inside Quebec. And by week’s end, the provincial Liberal youth wing dropped the first shoe by publicly endorsing Charest.

A harder job for Charest will be keeping the federal Liberals at bay. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s entourage has decided that the way to win over the crucial soft nationalist vote in Quebec is to stop coddling—and force those Quebecers to finally choose between Canada and Quebec. Challenging Quebec’s right to unilaterally declare independence by appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada is part of that strategy, and Chrétien’s Quebec advisers have nothing but disdain for politicians like Johnson and Charest who oppose their hardline approach. (Charest maintains that the Supreme Court reference is bad politics because it offends many federalist Quebecers and drives them into the PQ camp.) “Charest made a terrible mistake on the Supreme Court challenge,” said one Chrétien confidant from Montreal. “He helps legitimize the separatist option.”

When the Supreme Court reference flared into public view last month, federal cabinet ministers Marcel Massé and Stéphane Dion unceremoniously shoved Johnson aside and called their own news conference in Montreal to rebut Bouchard’s attacks on Ottawa’s initiative. Their disdainful treatment of Johnson was not lost on Charest, who had all last week to visualize scenarios in which Chrétien’s circle could make his life miserable if he took Johnson’s old job. Charest had even called Dion to protest Ottawa’s treatment of the Quebec premier. And Charest told advisers last week that he feared Chrétien would not give him the autonomy he needed to succeed as Quebec Liberal leader. His best protection, in the short term at least, remains his firm opposition to the Supreme Court reference, which his supporters believe will be enough to convince Quebecers that he would be anything but a Chrétien proxy in Quebec.

In fact, despite the encouraging words about a Charest candidacy from ministers like Dion and Sheila Copps, relations between the two Liberal parties would almost certainly become more strained should the Tory leader take up the challenge. The federal party has little respect for the provincial party that shares its name but differs on many policies and most tactics. “Those guys are snake charmers,” said one Chrétien adviser. ‘They’ll welcome him as leader because they think he can win—and then they’ll rip his heart out.”

Despite his resentment at being backed into a corner last week, Charest found some light in his predicament. For one thing, accepting the Quebec Liberal mantle would set him up for the head-to-head confrontation with Bouchard he has sought for so long. “The Bloc is a crock,” Charest memorably thundered in his speech to the 1993 Tory leadership convention, begging to be “turned loose” on Bouchard’s new political creation, the federal Bloc Québécois. But the Liberals were soon in power in Ottawa, and Chrétien was not about to allow Charest to play more than a supporting role in what was supposed to be the trouncing of the separatists in the 1995 referendum. Despite being widely credited with saving the federalist bacon, Charest feels Chrétien has never given him his due for his contribution.

In Quebec, Charest would have a clear shot at Bouchard, a onetime friend who became a bitter enemy. Charest was among the Quebec Tories who welcomed Bouchard to Ottawa when he arrived with great fanfare in 1988. Bouchard was a guest in the Charest home— Charest remembers Bouchard dangling young Amélie Charest, now 14, on his knee. And

Bouchard’s wife, Audrey, became good friends with Michèle. But in 1990, Charest was handed the task of finding a way to mollify critics of the Meech Lake constitutional accord—including Chrétien, then the Liberal leadership frontrunner—in order to ensure its final passage. Chrétien’s constitutional politics have always been anathema to Bouchard, who was the most important Quebec minister in the Mulroney Conservative government. When he discovered that Chrétien had been involved in backroom dealings with Tory advisers on the Charest process, he stormed out of the government, denouncing the Charest committee as an unacceptable attempt to “weaken” the terms of Meech Lake. His dramatic exit included a slur on Charest’s reputation, with Bouchard accusing him of betraying Quebec’s interests.

Although Bouchard and Charest have encountered each other only twice since then, their political differences are sharpened with a personal edge. Charest may have scoffed at the calls last week that portrayed him as the one politician who can “save Quebec for Canada.” But he has a not-so-humble confidence in his own instincts about Quebec’s political moods, and believes he is far better qualified to handle Bouchard than the federal Liberals.

In his few moments of frustration last week, Charest expressed anger that he was being asked to walk away from the Tory party after laboring so hard to rebuild it from scratch over the past four years. But he stops short of believing he is the only leader who can restore the party to its former power. What he was seeking last week, some of his advisers say, was some assurance that the party would not be driven towards extreme right-wing policies by any

The decision is fraught with dangers for all sides successor. But his federal colleagues were also a study in frustration last week, caught between their desire to convince Charest to stay and the awareness that too vociferous a resistance to his going to Quebec could be construed as somehow unpatriotic.

So party members reeled between denial and the blue-sky optimism about who might replace Charest if he indeed left. “I would be flabbergasted, just stunned if he jumped,” said New Brunswick Tory MP John Herron. But as the week went on and Charest’s denials softened, a more fatalistic frame of mind set in. “He doesn’t owe the party anything—he’s done more than expected,” said Saskatchewan Senator David Tkachuk, who co-chaired the Tories 1997 campaign. “We’d love him to stay but sometimes history just commands you to do things. Tories will understand that he never really had a choice.”

As awareness grew that Charest’s “No” in fact meant, “I’m thinking about it,” many Tories began considering how the party would cope. “I prefer to see Jean stay on as leader,” said Hugh Segal, the longtime Tory activist whose outspoken defence of the party’s progressive traditions makes him a potential candidate in any race to

succeed Charest. “But if he decides to go, then a wide-open race and convention would be good for the party.” The most frequently mentioned name was Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. His appeal is obvious: a proven winner at the provincial level who can match the Liberals for bragging rights on balancing a budget. On the surface, at least, Klein seemed to offer the party the best chance of regaining its lost allure in the West and Ontario. The danger for the Tories is that the list thins out quickly after that. “There’s Ralph and, urn, that’s about it,” agreed one Tory senator last week. Klein, meanwhile, coyly denied any interest in national politics.

But last week’s developments teased Canadians with the prospect of a shakeup of national politics. Johnson’s resignation opened a crack in a political landscape that had seemed in deep freeze. The current configuration of largely regional opposition parties—none showing any sign of being able to punch out of their core constituencies to find wider support—was unlikely to threaten the Liberal grip on power for years to come.

Charest’s departure could change that. It would present the Tories with their own pivotal moment: either find a leader with pan-Canadian appeal, or slip back below the waves for good. And in Quebec, the interminable struggle would have a fresh contender, from a new generation, perhaps the only Quebec federalist who can match Bouchard for political feel. Their personal grudge would only add to the theatre of it all. Charest’s decision will determine whether upheaval and excitement lies ahead in Canadian politics, or if the pieces, having risen tantalizingly into the air, will just settle back into their former shape. □