In politics, perception trumps reality. And no one knows this better than Jean Charest, the embattled Quebec Premier who is fighting an election campaign that might signal the end of his long political career.
Not that it is unfair that the Charest Liberals risk defeat. After nine years in power and three mandates, it’s perfectly normal that voters want change, especially after a relatively lacklustre reign. Mr. Charest’s government managed the economy rather well, but overall, it doesn’t leave much to boast about.
Mr. Charest was unable to accomplish the two goals he had in mind when he formed his first government in 2003 – the reduction of the province’s large bureaucracy and the strengthening of Quebec’s ties with the rest of Canada. He was never popular enough to overcome the population’s ingrained reluctance to such changes. Instead, he quietly cruised along on the statist tradition of the province. And although he was a strong federalist – the first and only Quebec Premier who had a genuine love and understanding of Canada – he felt obliged to morph into a Quebec nationalist and kept his distance from Ottawa and “English Canada.”
Still, Mr. Charest certainly doesn’t deserve to be demonized in the way he has been. His adversaries, helped by part of the media, have managed to paint him as a dishonest politician at the helm of a thoroughly corrupt government. As if Quebec, under Jean Charest, was akin to Putin’s Russia or Berlusconi’s Italy! This is absurd, but mud sticks.
There is no doubt that the mafia is at work in the construction industry – this went on under Parti Québécois governments as well – and that there have been unsavoury deals in the awarding of public contracts, but this is mostly the case at the municipal rather than the provincial level, and most allegations of corruption haven’t been substantiated. As for Mr. Charest himself, his only weak spot is the fact that for some years he accepted an extra $75,000 a year paid for by his party – a scheme that was questionable, but not illegal.
During last spring’s “student strike,” which unleashed a torrent of verbal violence and vicious Twitter attacks, Mr. Charest was systematically accused of leading the province into “neo-liberalism” – a term borrowed from France’s peculiar political lexicon, where “liberalism” is synonymous with “unbridled capitalism.” This accusation is surrealistic.
Between 1999 to 2009, the province’s public administration increased from 30 per cent to 34.5 per cent of the GDP. Between 2002 to 2011, 86,400 public-sector jobs were created. Thanks to an increase in social transfers, the poorest citizens saw their income double while the income taxes on the rich got heavier.
Far from cutting social programs, Mr. Charest expanded them. The publicly funded daycare program got larger, while the parents’ contribution was increased by a mere $2. Quebec now provides free fertility treatments, and Mr. Charest wants the free dental care program for children extended to kids between 10 and 16. In his plan for the economic development of the North, the duties imposed on mining companies will be 28 per cent higher than the Canadian average.
If this is a “neo-liberal” government, one wonders what social democracy is.
The xenophobes who ride the social media chimed in with yet another nastier and sillier insult: They derisively call him “John” (the baptism name chosen by his Irish mother). For these nationalist extremists, this means that Mr. Charest is the ultimate enemy – an anglophone hidden behind a French surname!
It is doubtful that this week’s leaders’ televised debates will overcome such a strident demonization campaign.