Beginning of the end for Jean Charest

He has the summer to get his act together and improve party fortunes

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Saturday, June 2, 2007

Jean Charest got through the day. Now he needs to get through the summer. Think of him as a contestant on Survivor, trying to persuade the Quebec Liberal Party not to vote him off the island.

Well, he's got some hard work ahead of him if he wants to lead the Liberal Party into the next election.

And never mind the standing ovation he got from his caucus yesterday after pulling off a late-night deal with the PQ on Thursday to avert defeat on the budget.

Charest is in trouble, serious trouble, with his caucus, with the party pros who run the Big Red Machine, and with the rank and file of the Liberal base. And if he doesn't know it, then that's just confirmation of how much trouble he's in.

Recent events have called his judgment, and competence, into question, even among Liberal activists, normally a discreet and disciplined political cohort.

But many Liberals are now talking openly about a departure by Charest by the end of summer, and a leadership convention in the fall, to have a new leader in place to face Mario Dumont and Pauline Marois in an election expected in the spring of next year.

So, does Charest want to lead this party? And does the party want him as its leader? Only Charest can answer the first question, and the jury is very much out on the second.

The first thing he needs to do is pull the government together in the legislature for the last three weeks of the session before the summer break. For the last week, with the unravelling of the budget, Charest looked like the leader of the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight. Fortunately for him, he is usually a dominant figure in question period. Fortunately for him, he had a good day in the legislature yesterday.

And that should tell him something important. The good humoured, smiling Charest was back, in sharp contrast to the angry Charest who looked insufferably arrogant last week when he torqued up the budget impasse as proof that a minority parliament doesn't work.

It was this complete misread of the voters' mood, and his brinksmanship about a summer election, that raised new questions of his judgment among party stalwarts.

They were already wondering about his decision to move up the election call from April to February. Then there was his campaign promise to cut taxes by $700 million, reminding voters of broken tax promises in the first mandate, and locking him in for the second. So much for the fiscal imbalance as a serious public policy issue.

The Liberal base made it clear to Charest that it had no enthusiasm, and in some cases no intention, of fighting a summer election on the budget. And that was even before they saw his leadership numbers in polls by CROP and Leger this week. In the CROP, Charest was chosen best premier by 23 per cent of respondents, and the Leger was even worse at 20 per cent. These are deadweight, dead-last numbers - the leader is pulling down the party brand.

Charest has seen numbers like this before, and rolled back the rock. There's no reason he can't pick it up again.

But the question being asked, especially since his indifferent performance in the campaign, is whether he still has his appetite for the game of politics.

The summer will tell us a lot about that. The premier of Quebec doesn't get a holiday. He gets to go to barbecues, picnics, blueberry festivals, corn roasts and golf tournaments. Nobody works harder at this than Charest, and nobody does it better. And the smiling Charest is a big improvement over the angry one.

Then, Charest needs to do some fence-mending with the party's anglophone constituency, still smarting from the exclusion of Geoff Kelley and, to a lesser extent, Lawrence Bergman, from the cabinet. Gender parity and downsizing the cabinet were worthy ideas, but what's the difference between 18 and 20 ministers? Answer: two Chryslers.

Putting Kelley back in the cabinet, along with former bank executive Nicole Menard from the South Shore, would repair the breach and maintain gender parity.

Finally, Charest needs to do something about his office, which has a reputation for not listening to anyone, and not even returning phone calls. It's time for a serious shakeup of the premier's office.

Finally, the party is still waiting to have the conversation with Charest about what went wrong in the campaign. Memos and papers have been written, but no one has called a post-mortem meeting.

Maybe they think everything is just fine. That's what they thought in the federal Liberal Party after Paul Martin nearly lost an election in 2004. And we all know what happened in 2006.

 
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