Charest's Liberals Win Majority in Quebec

IT COST HIM five years of pressing flesh in the boonies, away from home and the cameras, but Jean CHAREST was finally able to convince a majority of Quebec voters that he belongs - and is ready to govern the province.
IT COST HIM five years of pressing flesh in the boonies, away from home and the cameras, but Jean CHAREST was finally able to convince a majority of Quebec voters that he belongs - and is ready to govern the province.

Charest's Liberals Win Majority in Quebec

IT COST HIM five years of pressing flesh in the boonies, away from home and the cameras, but Jean CHAREST was finally able to convince a majority of Quebec voters that he belongs - and is ready to govern the province. They gave him a clear mandate for change, but, in his victory speech in his home riding of Sherbrooke on April 14, Charest also said, in English, that changes in Quebec will bring changes in Canada too.

Funny, that. Nobody casually refers to Canada in a provincial campaign, especially when he doesn't have to. Here, the Péquistes blame everything on "Ottawa," not Canada. Federalists try to avoid the C word, or obliquely refer to " l'union canadienne " if they can't. But Charest is something else.

When was the last time Quebecers elected a premier who knows Canada well, understands it intimately, and speaks English like any other premier from Ontario or Alberta? Bernard LANDRY, Lucien BOUCHARD, Robert BOURASSA were, more than anything else, students of European institutions, and recipients of the French cultural heritage taught at their collège classique. Jacques PARIZEAU looked, thought and harrumphed like an Oxford leftist, while René LÉVESQUE was fascinated by the Americans, their politics and their institutions - his English was Yankee slang, much more than Westmount proper.

Consequently, Quebec premiers have often been the odd man out in federal-provincial meetings - much like BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS Leader Gilles Duceppe in the House of Commons today. Quebec premiers are, traditionally, the ones responding to Byzantine political pressures, pushing an unfamiliar agenda, making strange demands, in a language few around the table understand.

That is the basic image most Quebecers, and probably most Canadians as well, have of the Quebec-Ottawa dynamic: the estranged minority - or, at least, the distinct minority, annoyingly distinct at times - trying to make itself heard above a majority that does not always understand, even when it is listening. (Mind you, a number of Quebec politicians have understood Canada well enough to call Sussex Drive home, but they were federal politicians - another breed altogether, one with a different job description too.)

A great many people in Quebec see themselves as citizens of the province first, then as North Americans or citizens of the world. For many Quebecers, being, acting, thinking, feeling Canadian is an incidental part of their identity - something that pops up to the surface when national athletes shine, when they travel abroad, at tax time, or when Quebec's "traditional demands" get turned down. This stems more from cultural estrangement and bad political habits than from indifference or outright hostility. In politics, this somewhat schizoid identification is even more clear-cut: waving the Maple Leaf is the job of federal politicians. Provincial politicians are there, as the cliché goes, to "defend Quebec's interests" - being understood that these are, by definition, threatened in Canada.

In this regard, Charest is a mutant, an innovative anomaly: he comes from head office and knows his way around Parliament Hill, but was elected to run a regional office which is, traditionally, if not essentially, at loggerheads with the thinking and the policies of head office.

Just watch him stickhandle, now.

Quebecers may not always know what they want, but they sure know how to get it. They have elected Charest's Liberals with 76 of the province's 125 seats - not a landslide, but more than enough to claim a mandate for change. They have sent the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS to the gallows of the opposition, with an equally clear mandate to criticize and renew themselves. But, with 45 seats, the PQ will be stronger than it has ever been in opposition - far from repudiated or dead. For good measure, Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec, which ended up with just four seats, was, in fact, supported by 18.3 per cent of voters - probably enough to keep it growing.

Ironically, a true-to-life Canadian premier of Quebec, backed and pushed by a hefty and snarling Péquiste opposition in Quebec City, is probably the most lethal combination for the continuing of the current state of provincial-federal affairs. Charest made that much clear the day after the election in his first news conference as premier-elect in Quebec City. He remarked that Quebec "traditionally" has played a leadership role in bringing about change in Canada. And he promised to play that role, as well.

That was enough to set off the usual suspects. Landry warned that Ottawa naturally rejoices at having a weak interlocutor in Charest, and Duceppe reminded everyone of the urgency to defend the will of the National Assembly in Ottawa. Columnists in the National Post were quick to point out that "the separatists lost" and that "it's OK to say no to Quebec."

Charest said he will steer clear of reopening the constitutional debate, but he promised to join forces with the other premiers in pursuing a common agenda - mainly getting a bigger share of tax dollars from Ottawa (his stance triggered positive noises from Alberta and Manitoba, among others). No one was pushing Charest to serve such a warning to Ottawa. But for the most part, the election was a provincial affair, for once. Voters expect Charest to cut taxes and fix the health-care system as promised; many also want him to unravel the municipal mergers imposed by the Parti Québécois. The federal-provincial sideshow about changing the way Canada works came as a bonus.

As outgoing premier Landry pointed out, voters ousted a government that a majority of them thought had done a decent job. Still, pundits tell us separatism is dead, and that Quebecers have grown weary of big, interventionist government - and of confrontation with Ottawa. There is some truth in all that, but I think there is more. Just like an annoyance over putting the cap back on the toothpaste tube can escalate into a divorce, Péquism had begun to irritate Quebec voters. Péquism is a mix of idiosyncrasies, among them: overusing Latin words such as referendum, status quo or consensus, calling everything that is provincial "national," and always being right on issues - and sorry for those in "the population" who fail to realize it.

Only 70 per cent of Quebec voters bothered to vote last week - the lowest turnout in decades - and only 33 per cent of those supported the Parti Québécois. Wasn't that a clear signal that the PQ's separatist platform needs some serious burnishing? Absolutely not, according to Landry. Even if the government governs well and makes the right decisions, some citizens are bound to disagree, he said. So after nine years in office, a large number of good policies have upset a large number of voters ... that's Péquism for you.

I hooked up with a young Péquiste, a former party apparatchik now criss-crossing Europe and the U.S., selling media properties, to pick his brain on the Quebec election result. "The PQ now is very much where Britain's Labour Party was before Tony Blair came along," he said. "They will need to take a long, hard look at themselves, before becoming attractive and relevant again." So, Charest - and the rest of Canada - have at least four, possibly eight, years to see whether Quebecers, distinct as they are, can be made to function like Canadians, comme les autres. Worth watching.

Maclean's April 28, 2003