It is time for Jean Charest to get back in control

The premier has been missing in action since two top aides left in October

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jean Charest has been missing in action, or off message, since last October.

The date is no coincidence. That was when Dan Gagnier left his office as the premier's chief of staff, and John Parisella was appointed Quebec's delegate-general in New York.

Gagnier and Parisella were the two principal advisers responsible for Charest's turnaround following his disastrous 2007 campaign, and his restoration to majority status 18 months later in the December 2008 election.Their roles were different but complementary - Gagnier ran the government from the centre, while Parisella kept Charest up to speed on the mood of the Quebec Liberal Party.

Charest hasn't been the same since they left.

Charest is a gifted retail politician, the best of his generation, but he needs to be well managed. Left to his own devices, he tends to play a short game, with entirely forseeable consequences.

Charest's grandstanding at the Copenhagen conference on climate change last December is a case in point. While his posturing on Quebec's ambitious goals for reducing GHG emissions won him short-term headlines at home, it mystified Ottawa and infuriated Alberta, home of the oilsands, a very convenient target of climate- change activists.

It is no accident that Alberta's pushback has included pointed reminders that Quebec receives $8.3 billion a year of equalization payments from Ottawa via donor provinces. In essence, the oil sands help subsidize Quebec's $7-per-day child-care program and other entitlements, such as $1,700-a-year university tuition. A heated debate on equalization has begun and Quebec, which receives more equalization money than the other five recipient provinces combined, is very much at the centre of it.

Then in January, at a joint appearance with Stephen Harper at Rivière du Loup, Charest, instead of turning the page on his Copenhagen comments, reiterated them.

As a direct result, Quebec's request for $2.2 billion from the feds for a harmonized sales tax fell off the table. Charest's vanity might have been served, but Quebec's interests weren't. Charest will get the money in the end, but he is being reminded that Harper signs the cheque.

Managing Quebec's role in the federation, and its partnership with the other provinces, is the premier's unique responsibility. Charest needs to mend fences with Harper, and restore the Quebec-Alberta alliance that has been a hallmark of the federation since the time of Peter Lougheed and Robert Bourassa.

This means playing the long game. But there are distractions, and a whiff of scandal, around the Liberal brand that Charest also needs to put right.

First there were the allegations by a former and short-serving justice minister, Marc Bellemare, of political influence in the appointment of judges to the provincial court. Charest's appointment of former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache to look into the matter was an inspired choice. As a francophone New Brunswicker, he has no connections with the Quebec bar or bench. Does the justice minister consult the premier before appointing judges from peer-reviewed lists? Of course, that's how the system works. And that's probably what Bastarache will find, once he gets through hiring help. As for Bellemare, and his allegations of influence peddling, Charest is suing, and the smart money is on the premier.

Then there are irregularities in Liberal fundraising exemplified by Tony Tomassi, the hapless former minister for families, who was tossed from cabinet and caucus for accepting a gas credit card billed to a private security company, BCIA, but also received donations for a golf tournament from BCIA running donations through its employees. The company, which received several million dollars in government business grants, is now insolvent.

Companies donating through employees is an all-too common practice, in violation of the spirit if not the letter of Quebec's 1977 campaign finance law, which banned corporate and union donations, and limited personal donations to $3,000 per year.

René Lévesque called it his proudest achievement, and rightly so, but nearly 35 years later it is a propitious moment to update the law. Charest can get in front of this issue by closing the loophole on corporate donations with stiff fines, and bringing Quebec into line with federal guidelines by reducing the ceiling on personal donation to $1,000 per year. While he's at it he could also increase the public subsidy from 40 cents for each vote received by parties in the previous election to, say, $1 per vote. In Ottawa, the subsidy is $2 per vote.

Then, Charest should end the practice of cabinet ministers being asked to raise $100,000 each for the Liberal Party. This is inherently conflictual with their roles, and puts them in harm's way. Charest also needs fundraisers who are disinterested, who are not doing it for influence or leverage, which cannot be said of most of his bag men. The Liberals are awash in cash, and money is the root of much political evil.

Finally, Charest has done the right thing in renouncing his $75,000-a-year allowance from the Liberal Party, as a top-up to his $175,000 salary. Which is ridiculously low in itself - the presidents of the Caisse de Depôt and Hydro-Québec earn about three times as much the guy they report to. This was the opposition's price for getting a code of ethics through the legislature, and since the allowance was subsidized by donations to the Liberal Party, it's the right call.

It's too soon to say whether Charest's tailspin of the last six months is irreversible. It's not too soon to say he needs to get back on the job, and recover his top form. At his father's funeral this month, the premier spoke movingly of the qualities of Claude Charest. But if he were here, Red Charest would probably say, "that's enough about me, time to get back to work."

 
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