Canada: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Mar 25 16:08:31 UTC 2006

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Why Harper and Charest are suddenly all buddy-buddy


The 200 well-dressed Quebec Liberal supporters were packed tight inside a
community centre in the heart of Montreal's Gay Village. The dapper crowd
had come to kick off a campaign for a local kid taking a shot at a seat in
the National Assembly in the coming by-election. The rookie, thirty-three
year-old Nathalie Malepart, isn't being given much in the way of
favourable odds--the riding is considered a Parti Quebecois stronghold and
even a star Liberal candidate would be a long-shot. But that doesn't stop
the party faithful from cheering loudly. They go through the motions.
Bass-heavy dance music to introduce the speakers is followed by controlled
delirium; Armani-clad men with gel-forged haircuts whoop and whistle at
every well-designed pause.

This is only a dress-rehearsal. The by-election, everyone knows, is
meaningless. What is the value of one seat in a legislature that will
likely be dissolved sometime next year to make way for a general election?
With their majority in the National Assembly unthreatened, the Liberals
have nothing to lose and little to gain. Still, everyone is on their best
behavior; with eyes on the clock, they are eager to prove the Liberal
electoral machine is ready for action. But if Liberal calendars are filled
with circles, they are sporting some question marks as well. April marks
the beginning of the fourth year in the Liberal mandate.  Stephen Harpers
Conservative party, meanwhile, has been in power for close to two
months--still with no federal budget. Charest's government is starting to
wonder what goodies the federal government might hold for the provinces,
or if they'll have to wait for next years budget for more hand-me-downs
from Ottawa.  Premier Jean Charest takes the stage after Malepart. His
speech, too, is a warm-up of sorts; an experiment. It is a campaign speech
that is not really about the campaign at hand--rather, it is a precarious
toe in cold waters. Charest talks about health care and education, and
then about health care some more. He finishes by hammering the PQ for
their "obsession" with holding another referendum.

Charest seems to be feeling his way around a place he doesn't want to be,
but the premier needs to hear what a campaign speech sounds like without
being able to brag about correcting the fiscal imbalance, securing a seat
for the province at UNESCO or delivering the tax cuts he promised four
years ago. With the countdown to the next provincial election already
underway, the premier is facing something of a lacuna between what he
wants to campaign for and what he'll be able to campaign for without
leaving voters incredulous. Giving shorter campaign speeches is,
decidedly, not Charest's best option.  But without Harper coming through
on some of his own campaign promises, Charest may find that he has little
to show for his time in office. His government often appears stagnant--stuck
in the polls at ten points behind the PQ, depending on whose stats youre
reading--and it has been that way since he took office in 2003, due to a
series of well-publicized missteps and widely unpopular policy decisions.

Fortunately for Charest, Harper has been busy laying the groundwork for a
symbiotic relationship with the Quebec government since taking power. The
desired end result is clear, mutual back-scratching leading to Charest's
re-election and a Harper majority, thanks to further inroads in Quebec.
The two leaders have already met three times since the January 23
election. Harpers visit to the National Assembly in early March had the
added significance of being the first time a prime minister visited the
Quebec legislature since Brian Mulroney dropped by to see Rene Levesque in

During his visit, Harper pledged to give Quebec a role within the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Charest has
long-advocated giving Quebec a prominent status on the international scene
and often butted with Paul Martins government over the issue. For Charest,
it would be a symbolic victory which would appeal to nationalists and
maybe even the odd soft sovereigntist. This is precisely the kind of
victory Charest needs in the home stretch of his mandate. Never mind the
saying about a week in politics being a lifetime--the reality is that one
year is not long enough for grandiose projects or policies to supplant the
public perception of a government stuck in a rut. No, Charest's fate lies
in metaphoric accomplishments.

In that sense, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could very well be the best
thing that ever happened to Premier Jean Charest. The problem, according
to veteran journalist Graham Fraser, is that Charest hasn't been able to
build on that good news.

Fraser is the author of Sorry, I Don't Speak French, a nuanced yet
light-hearted examination of federal language policy and linguistic
etiquette. A Toronto Star columnist who was a weekly writer for Le Devoir
in the late 1990s, Fraser also covered the National Assembly for the
Montreal Gazette before joining the Globe and Mails Ottawa Bureau in 1986.
>>From his point of view, the Charest government is one mired in an
inability to create momentum for itself.

Fraser points to Charest's recent botched cabinet shuffle. The shake-up was
designed to be a good news event, with former sovereigntist-turned-star
and Liberal candidate Raymond Bachand joining the government following his
December by-election win. Instead it ended with questions about the level
of support for Charest's leadership within the Liberal caucus when
Environment Minister Thomas Mulcair quit, rather than accept a demotion.

Alone, the event isn't tremendously unique; cabinet shuffles are part of
the life cycle of most governments. But placed in the context of Charest's
three years in office, a pattern does emerge--that of a chronic inability to
execute. Charest aimed to cut $103 million from a loans and bursary
program for university and CEGEP students, but he backtracked after
student strikes threatened to cripple the education system. Charest aimed
to reform the provinces day-care network, but was forced to revise his
plans after facing stiff opposition from day-care workers. His governments
plans to build a French language super-hospital seem to anger a new group
every time they're tabled, forcing yet another round of consultations.

Added together, these anti-accomplishments mean Charest has precious
little to show the public for his time in power. He cant claim to have cut
education spending, opposition parties will claim credit for the positive
elements of day-care reform, and he is vulnerable to accusations of
dithering in the super-hospital file.

Charest has dug himself into a hole, says Peter Blaikie, a prominent
Montreal lawyer and former president of the Progressive Conservative
Party. Blaikie, himself a former columnist for the Montreal Gazette,
doesn't believe Charest's term has been any more disastrous than any other
premier in history, but he is quick to point out that it has been a long,
hard fall from grace for the curly haired kid from Sherbrooke since he
entered provincial politics in 1998.

The Ottawa media created an image of Charest walking on the water when he
stepped down as head of the Progressive Conservatives to take over the
Quebec Liberals, Blaikie says. Charest's most serious problem is the level
of expectations he's had to face. Harpers campaign promises will help
Charest's fallen image, he adds, but they alone wont save him.

Still, Charest can now count on a federal government more ideologically
inclined to the Quebec Liberals. Harpers call for a stricter reading of
the constitution is expected to give the provinces more room to maneuver,
and could foster the image that Charest's presence encourages a more
productive relationship with Ottawa.

To be sure, Charest's fortunes in the next election wont be entirely
predicated on the fruits that his budding friendship with Harper bears.
There are two extra-Harper factors that augur well for the Liberals: The
first of these is a two-edged sword that has so far proved dull and
harmless--Andre Boisclair. The Boy Wonder has failed to live up to the hype
surrounding his glamorous but turbulent run for the PQ leadership.
Boisclair's penchant for vacuous speeches and ambiguous policy positions
have quickly overshadowed his camera-friendly smile. But as his leadership
campaign showed, Boisclair's popularity can be resilient, even infectious.

The other factor working in the Liberals favor is the emergence of a new
left-wing sovereigntist party. Quebec Solidaire came to life in February,
following the merger of Option citoyenne and the Union des forces
progressistes. The unspoken fear among PQ supporters is that the new party
will siphon enough votes away from its traditional support base to allow
the Liberals to take advantage from the left.

Meanwhile, Charest will continue to try and use the spectre of another
referendum as a wedge issue. The choice we'll have is a very clear one. We
can continue on health care, or put all that aside and hold a referendum.
We can continue in education, or put all that aside and hold a referendum.
We can continue rebuilding our economy, or put all that aside and hold
another referendum, Charest told a crowd in another campaign-style speech
in March.

However, Quebecers have shown on two previous occasions that they're not
scared of electing a government promising to hold a referendum. Quebecers
wont be blackmailed into re-electing a party they don't like, says Fraser,
who also penned an acclaimed book on the Parti Quebecois under Rene Levesque.

Enter Harper, the so-called fiscal imbalance and the seat at UNESCO. They
are the metaphorical victories Charest needs to reverse the image of a
Liberal party out of touch with the electorate. Resolving the two issues
within the span of a year could even lend the party an appearance of
momentum. Of course the problem is that Charest ultimately has to share
control over the decisions concerning if, how and when these issues will
be settled.

For now, we can expect more speeches like Charest gave to launch
Malepart's by-election campaign--shallow indictments of the threat of
separatism, desperate championing of heath-care reform, and the
conspicuous absence of anything really worth bragging about.

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