Charest Leaves Ottawa for Quebec

From the front porch of his home above the lakeside retreat of North Hatley, Que., Jean Charest could watch the spring breakup on Lake Massawippi last week while considering the thaw he, himself, had just ushered in to Canada's own icebound political landscape.

Charest Leaves Ottawa for Quebec

From the front porch of his home above the lakeside retreat of North Hatley, Que., Jean Charest could watch the spring breakup on Lake Massawippi last week while considering the thaw he, himself, had just ushered in to Canada's own icebound political landscape. Charest had returned to Quebec's Eastern Townships to declare he was swapping the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives for a riskier head-to-head battle, as a provincial Liberal, with the separatist Parti Québécois government in its own lair. More than mere sentimentality convinced Charest to make his announcement in this rural southeast corner of the province. In villages and towns linked along the Townships' dipping back roads, English and French Quebecers have mixed easily for more than two centuries, sharing a suspicion of both Montreal's cosmopolitan, big business interests and the bureaucratic, provincial obsessions of Quebec City. Townshippers are proof, as Charest reminded a happy, grasping crush of 800 who turned out in a community hall in nearby Sherbrooke to wish him well, that Quebecers get along just fine when their politicians stop picking at the scab of independence.

The charismatic 39-year-old could not have hoped for a more euphoric, more strategically successful homecoming. Charest preached his welcome message of reconciliation and hope, then dropped a hornet into the PQ's shorts by suggesting that Premier Lucien Bouchard was planning to drop his pledge to hold another referendum on sovereignty if he wins the next Quebec election. The prospect of that referendum is as unpopular with a majority of Quebecers as it is an article of faith with PQ hardliners. And Charest was not about to allow Bouchard to wiggle free from his burden. In doing so, he wasted no time proving right those who predicted a highly personal tinge to his coming battle with Bouchard, a former federal colleague whose friendship was lost in the constitutional wars. "I happen to know Lucien Bouchard well enough to tell you today he is preparing to change his strategy," taunted Charest, cranking his scorn meter up a notch as he warned against the premier's "duplicity."

But as promising as the road ahead in Quebec looks - for now, at least - Charest left behind a choppy wake of confusion and uncertainty in federal circles. The Tory party he loved so much is in deep difficulty. Despite urging his caucus to "stick together" at a supposedly secret, final meeting in Ottawa last week, divisions emerged almost immediately after Charest and his wife, Michèle, finished their emotional goodbyes. In pushing ahead with a contentious argument over who should become interim leader, the 19 remaining MPs annoyed the larger, more experienced Senate caucus. The senators worry about keeping a high profile until Charest is replaced, and were horrified at the prospect of deputy leader Elsie Wayne, whom many consider lacking gravitas, taking the job. Some senators even suggested going outside the parliamentary caucus to seek such prominent Tories as former ministers John Crosbie or Barbara McDougall, which would remove the pressure for a quick leadership convention. But the MPs seem poised to name one of their own, although Wayne was facing competition from well-regarded Brandon MP Rick Borotsik.

Finding a capable full-time leader will be far tougher. Despite Charest's dogged rebuilding efforts, the party is shopping for a new direction while perched on the edge of a political cliff. "I know something about how tough it is to overcome discouragement to build political parties up from nothing, and Charest has done a hell of a rebuilding job," commented former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed in offering an epitaph for the Charest era. Even so, the Tories under Charest were stalled in the polls and $10 million in debt. "No money, no people," winced one Tory senator last week, summing up the party's desperation after saying his private farewells to Charest.

Certainly the list of high-profile candidates to take over the grand party of Macdonald, Diefenbaker and Mulroney is short. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said no to the job at week's end in Red Deer, claiming, "the place I can make the most difference is here, as premier of Alberta." Klein was by far the most popular early choice to replace Charest, and it is unlikely that those Tories who want him to run federally will stop asking - even if he did say the door was "slammed shut." In last week's overheated atmosphere, it was difficult to separate Klein's own wishes from the ambitions of the advisers and friends around him, with many Alberta Tories suggesting Klein simply wanted to lance the public pressure in order to allow calmer, private planning to proceed. "Ralph Klein is always seeking challenges, and the spice of this challenge in Alberta has waned a bit," said one longtime Calgary Tory last week. "He is nervous about some things, like being unilingual. But Ralph needs a taller mountain. This is a holding pattern." Others were less sure. "I take his answer at face value," responded Tory national director Ross Reid stoically.

But Klein has appeared clumsy during his short time in the national spotlight. He showed a lack of discipline in letting details of a private conversation with Charest slip ahead of the latter's formal announcement. More seriously, his decision to invoke the controversial constitutional notwithstanding clause in order to limit compensation to Alberta's victims of forced sterilization last month left many Tories questioning his political judgment. "If someone suggests using the notwithstanding clause when I'm in the room, for anything, all the warning bells go off," said the leader of another provincial Tory party, shaking his head.

Removing Klein from the equation leaves Tories searching for someone else who might quell the open warfare raging between members over just how progressive or conservative the Progressive Conservative party should be. The peace and discipline that power imposed during Brian Mulroney's leadership has long since vanished, and the Tories' propensity for attacking their own species returned during the 1997 federal election. In that campaign, Ontario Tories loyal to Mike Harris argued that the party should pin its campaign exclusively on a tax-cutting message - and were fended off by Charest and the moderate advisers who argued that such a strategy would destroy the party.

That disagreement created a schism between the Harris and federal wings that has not healed and appears primed to come to a head in a leadership convention. This month, Harris hired Reformer Line Maheux as his new communications director. Maheux first inquired about the job in January, when Charest's Quebec adventure had yet to begin. But her appointment in the midst of this jittery period shocked moderate Tories. "It's a pretty clear message from Queen's Park that federal Tories shouldn't count on them for help," said one federal Tory adviser who supports a moderate line.

The Red Tory standard is most likely to be carried in a leadership race by longtime party activist Hugh Segal, who has honed his arguments against what he calls neoconservative extremism. There are also stubborn voices suggesting that old warrior Joe Clark should suit up for one more battle. After that, the party gets into the realm of looking at provincial leaders with questionable national appeal, such as Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, or unknowns like former Manitoba cabinet minister Brian Pallister. The faction arguing to steer towards a path of ever-deeper cuts to taxes and government is also scouting for a champion, possibly from the Harris government ranks.

Of course, many hard-core conservatives now carry Reform membership cards in their wallets. "Reform is not the enemy; Reform looks a lot like me, like my friends and neighbors," said one senior Manitoba Tory organizer last week, criticizing Charest's strategy of attacking Reformers as extremists. He argues that a new leader needs to woo Reform voters back to the Conservative fold. "We in the West are not enamored of the people running our party in Ottawa," he said. "Nobody there is in the real world."

The internal Tory divisions are seen as a glorious opportunity by those conservatives trying to build a united alternative to the right of the ruling Liberals. Whether the bulk of Tory and Reform members can ever come together - and, if so, under which name and whose leadership - is a drama already well underway. Reform has taken the lead in trying to meld the two parties. Last week, leader Preston Manning invited all opponents of the federal Liberals to come to a Reform-convened convention this fall, to explore the idea of creating a new political coalition.

Since Charest's departure became a possibility, Manning has been sounding more like an evangelist for his cause of broadening the party than a man determined to keep his current job. He has offered to put everything from the party's platform to its name and his own leadership up for negotiation if any Tories are interested. Reform strategists first considered running their own candidate for Charest's position. They even kicked around the notion of running Manning himself, though the idea was later dismissed for appearing too much like a stunt. "But how much bolder can we be?" asks Jason Kenney, the youthful Saskatchewan Reformer who heads the party's committee looking at the possibility of an alliance.

The 29-year-old Kenney worries openly that, without a merger of some sort, the split right-wing vote will keep him on the opposition benches until he is middle-aged. "We're reaching out, but the Tory palace guard won't play," he complained one morning last week. Nor will the Tory caucus. Its 19 remaining MPs are cut deep in the Red Tory mould. They bravely maintain that Canadians will eventually come around to the idea that Manning can never get enough support among moderate right-of-centre voters to form a government - and will throw their votes behind a party that can. As well, they believe that the appeal of Reform's anti-government crusade is over in an era of balanced books. The Charest team had estimated the pool of Canadians who would vote for a strictly right-wing party at less than 15 per cent. "From a strategic standpoint, it makes no sense for moderate conservatives to throw in their lot with extremists," says Bruce Anderson, an Ottawa consultant who was part of Charest's kitchen cabinet and whose brother, Rick, is a top Reform strategist. "You cannot create a coalition that is big enough to win power from the ideological right-wing."

But others warn that only a united alternative will ever defeat the Liberals - and that the Tories do not have the luxury of dictating terms. "Sure, many Tories will be leery of anything that smacks of Reform taking them over," says Stephen Harper, a former Reform MP and director of the National Citizens' Coalition in Calgary. "But survival is not an issue for the Reform party. It is for the Tories."

The articulate, 39-year-old Harper has been touted by some conservatives as the potential leader of a united right-wing party. Last week, Harper would not respond either way when asked. But it is hard to see Tories rallying to Harper, who is such a hardliner on anything that smacks of special status for Quebec that he denounced the modest tone of last September's Calgary declaration as a sellout. As Charest's philosophy is shaped by his Townships roots, Harper's views are forged by the newfound political muscle of the West. And they underscore the difficulties that any federal political force, whatever it is called, will have finding leaders with truly national appeal.

Turning up the Heat

The Parti Québécois wasted no time flinging barbs at their new nemesis, Jean Charest. In fact, their attacks last week merely continued the offensive launched on March 2 when Daniel Johnson announced his resignation as Quebec Liberal leader and the movement began to draft Charest as his successor. Sovereigntists have attempted to cast Charest as the candidate of English Canada - and, worse, of the federal Liberals. Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard recently declared at a PQ gathering that voting for Charest "will be to vote for Jean Chrétien." Given the Prime Minister's deep unpopularity among francophone Quebecers, it is a label no aspiring premier wants to be saddled with. But provincial Liberals say it won't stick - given the well-known political antagonism between the two. Charest, who advocates a conciliatory approach to Quebec, has repeatedly slammed Chrétien's so-called Plan B: Ottawa's hardline response to sovereignty. "Charest has no policies to defend that have come from the federal level," maintains Liberal strategist John Parisella.

That can only help him. Now that he has formally entered provincial politics, Charest must be seen as an ardent defender of Quebec's interests if he hopes to become premier. "If he was against Plan B as a federal politician, he'll be even more so as a provincial politician," predicts Louis Balthazar, a Laval University political scientist. Adds Conservative Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a former adviser to Bourassa: "I hope - and think - what he'll do is determine his own agenda." And while Chrétien promised that federal Liberals will "do everything we can" to help Charest, for some Quebec Liberals the best thing their federal cousins can do is lie low.

But Charest will need to do more than keep his distance from Chrétien. The failures of past Liberal leaders, who unsuccessfully pushed for constitutional reforms to meet Quebec's demands for increased autonomy, have frequently resulted only in an upsurge of support for sovereignty. The party needs a new strategy, maintains Parisella. "It has got to be a new approach to federal-provincial relations. And it has got to be a more outward-looking nationalism and one that deals with issues that affect Quebecers," adds Parisella. Charest left no doubt last week in Sherbrooke that Quebec's economic well-being is a key issue. Seizing upon referendum fatigue, Charest declared: "Our economy and our future are held hostage to a political debate that costs us so very dearly."

Charest peppered his speech with phrases like "a new sense of hope." That is clearly evident among provincial Liberals, who anticipate that a youthful leader - at 39, Charest is 20 years younger than Bouchard - will help attract more youth to the party. But although opinion polls showed Charest soaring ahead of the PQ, that could quickly change in the rough-and-tumble of Quebec politics. Claude Gauthier, vice-president of the polling firm CROP Inc., says: "That doesn't mean to say he'll lose all his charm, but I think people will evaluate him alongside Mr. Bouchard." The battle for Quebecers' affections promises to be fierce.

Maclean's April 6, 1998