Charest is just doing his job

In the election campaign, the premier concentrates on defending Quebec interests

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, September 21, 2008

What's Jean Charest up to in the federal election? Well, first, he's doing his job, as the defender of Quebec's interests, the litmus test of any premier of Quebec. And, second, he's having fun, negotiating the price of his support in public.

But, third, he's not going to be caught backing the wrong horse. That wouldn't be in Quebec's interests. And it wouldn't be fun, either.

Which means, at the end of the day, the Quebec Liberals will adhere to Charest's previous policy of supporting the federalist candidate in their riding who has the best chance of beating the Bloc Québécois.

In all but a handful of the 50 ridings off the island of Montreal, that means the provincial Liberals will be backing the Conservatives. The Quebec Liberals might not be turning up at Conservative meetings, as members of Mario Dumont's ADQ caucus are doing, but they'll be in the back room providing Stephen Harper with a ground game.

Take Sherbrooke, for instance. André Bachand is counting on taking it back for the Conservatives next month. Charest has a personal interest in this one. It's his own neighbourhood. Bachand was a member of Charest's Progressive Conservative caucus, class of '97, before Charest left for Quebec in 1998. Bachand dropped out of the 2004 federal race after the 2003 merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance. Since then, he's been Quebec's representative in Ottawa, with a direct line to the premier. Charest also has a score to settle with the sovereignists, who gave him a bad scare in his own seat in the 2007 Quebec election, where he ran behind all night until the advance poll was counted.

Or take Vaudreuil-Soulanges, off the western end of Montreal island, where the Conservative candidate is the trade minister, Michael Fortier. He's one of two Quebec ministers, the other being Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, with close ties to Charest and the Quebec Liberals. International trade is also a file in which the premier takes a strong personal interest.

Charest has been an advocate of a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union, and with Stephen Harper's support, has taken the lead in talks with European leaders, notably French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently chairperson of the EU, who will be here next month as part of the Quebec 400 celebration.

Fortier will need all the help Charest can deliver to defeat Meille Faille, a two-term Bloc incumbent who took the seat from the Liberals in 2004. In his bid to move down the hall from the Senate to the House, Fortier can also be positioned as the block-the-Bloc candidate, a theme the Liberals once used to their own advantage.

Which doesn't mean Charest can't give Harper the odd reminder of his role as the defender of Quebec's interests, as he did last week when the prime minister said that as far as Ottawa was concerned, the fiscal imbalance file was closed.

With $1.6 billion in additional transfer funds from Ottawa last year, Charest took another $700 million in enhanced equalization money, and gave it back to Quebecers in a tax cut he announced six days before the 2007 election. This resulted in a huge blowback from the rest of Canada, which saw Quebec voters being bribed with other people's money. It also resulted in an abrupt end to the fiscal imbalance debate. Problem solved. Next, suivant.

As Harper put it in a news conference at Trois Rivières the other day, if the topped-up federal funding gave Charest room for a tax cut, he must have enough money for health and education.

Arriving for a Quebec Liberal caucus in Victoriaville later that day, Charest riposted: "I'm not answerable to Ottawa for the management of public funds in the hands of the citizens of Quebec."

This is an enduring theme for Quebec premiers: "We have no lessons to take from Ottawa." And Charest played it perfectly.

Beyond that, there's one file on which he's having fun - Ottawa's cuts in cultural funding. And one that annoys him - constant delays in announcing federal-provincial accords in regional development.

These disagreements have broken out in public in the last week, to the point where Charest warned his ministers to stop piling on in the middle of a federal campaign.

He'll choose when to pile on. That's his prerogative as premier. And his fun.

 
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