Liberal leader has two years to turn around his fortunes
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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, April 6, 2007
Redemption and resurrection are timely Easter themes for Jean Charest. The premier has about two years to grow his minority government back to a majority at the next election, or to orchestrate an elegant exit strategy for himself and a timeline to choose his successor as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party.
Fortunately for Charest, the voters, having cut him down to size, want him to succeed. A Leger Marketing poll last weekend found 48 per cent of Quebecers thought the minority government would be competent, and 62 per cent wanted Charest to remain as premier. It seems Quebecers got the outcome they wanted - the Parti Quebecois relegated to third place, Mario Dumont as leader of the opposition and a Liberal government on a short leash.
As leader of the government, Charest has three things to do in the short term - name a new cabinet, write an inaugural address and draft a budget that can pass a minority legislature. As leader of the Liberals, Charest must oversee an unsparing appraisal of what went wrong in the campaign, and begin the process of renewing their intellectual capital.
The first part is the easy part. The second part is the hard part.
Normally, a new cabinet would have been sworn next Monday or Tuesday, two weeks after the election. But the Easter Week lull gives Charest another week to ponder his cabinet choices.
With a smaller caucus of only 48 members, he can have jobs for everyone - half his caucus can be in cabinet, and the other half can be parliamentary secretaries or committee chairpersons.
Or, Charest can send a message by downsizing the cabinet to about 20 members, and naming 10 women from the 16 in his caucus to cabinet. There were nine women in the last 25-member cabinet, and it wouldn't be much of a leap for women to comprise half the members of a smaller cabinet.
Two of the nine female ministers were defeated, and one didn't run again, but six female ministers were re-elected, including Treasury Board President Monique Jerome-Forget, Employment Minister Michelle Courchesne and Cultural and Communications Minster Line Beauchamp, all of whom are probably destined for higher portfolios (Forget is probably a lock for Finance, Beauchamp is a possibility for Education and Courchesne, with her background as general manager of the Montreal Symphony, would be a natural for Culture. Among the new Liberal members, "ministrables" include Margeurite Blais and Christine St-Pierre.)
A small cabinet with more women would be a statement on both government efficiency and gender parity around the cabinet table. Charest could also send a message of party unity by finally bringing Pierre Paradis back to cabinet. Whatever their personal differences in the past, it's time Charest got over them and made a magnanimous gesture.
In Quebec City, the throne speech is styled the inaugural address, and read by the premier at the opening of the session. Charest's office needs to draft this speech, or at least a few paragraphs, with Dumont in mind. For example, Dumont promised a commission into the status of senior citizens, a traditional Liberal clientele that voted in surprising numbers for the ADQ. It wouldn't cost Charest anything, and would help him regain traction among seniors, to fulfill this Dumont campaign promise.where the rubber hits the road. Charest promised a $700-million tax cut with part of the $2.3-billion fiscal imbalance payout from Ottawa, which understandably caused a huge backlash in the Rest of Canada even as it fell flat in the last week of the Quebec campaign. Both the PQ and ADQ opposed this proposal and Charest will be faced with either breaking a tax-cut promise again, or finding another use for the money, such as health care, municipal infrastructure and Quebec's cash-starved universities.
On the Liberal Party front, Charest can either deny anything went wrong (as the federal Liberals did after being reduced to a minority in 2004), or he can conduct a rigorous inquiry reaching into every level of the campaign (as the federal Conservatives did after a victory slipped away in 2004).
The Liberals decided to run on their record rather than proposing ideas for the future. But the record was a reminder of why voters were dissatisfied with the Charest government, and there was nothing on offer about the future.
As a result, the Liberal Party kept deferring to the government, and the campaign looked like the bureaucracy was running it. Even those closely involved admit it was a lousy campaign, bereft of ideas, with Charest himself missing in action until the final week.
The result should have reminded the Liberals deep pockets and the Big Red Machine alone aren't enough to win an election. At some level, they need to capture the imagination of voters with new ideas, which they utterly failed to do in the campaign.
Charest has two tests, then: to run a competent government and to rebuild the Liberals as a party of ideas.