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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Charest’s political life is on the line Add to ...

Jean Charest seems to have been around forever. He got elected for the first time 28 years ago, as a Progressive Conservative MP for Sherbrooke, but he had been involved in politics before that.

In the Joe Clark-Brian Mulroney leadership struggles, Mr. Charest, then a teenager already hooked on politics, was a Clark man. When Prime Minister Clark campaigned in Sherbrooke in 1980, Mr. Charest, 22 years old and barely a lawyer, introduced him at various events. The two men were very red Tories, which is what Mr. Charest remains today, albeit as a Liberal premier of Quebec.

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A travelling journalist was impressed. Who was this young guy with the golden tongue, bushy hair and impressive stage presence escorting around the prime minister? Almost three decades later, the no-longer-young Mr. Charest is now tempting fate by seeking a fourth term in an election expected to be called soon.

Leaders, properly instructed, are supposed to prepare for succession. This instruction is hard to appreciate for those who have won three provincial elections and cannot imagine doing anything else in life but politics. Mr. Charest has therefore done nothing to prepare the path for anyone but himself, and his path to a fourth victory is strewn with obstacles, including the most formidable one in politics: time for a change.

Mr. Charest’s entire adult life has been about politics, with all its manoeuvrings, vicissitudes, triumphs and cruelties. In the crucible of Quebec politics, if a nasty epithet has not been directed at him, it is because the epithet has not been invented.

Experience has delivered to him an elephantine skin; a nose for sniffing opportunity; a capacity to shift direction swiftly; a shameless willingness to abandon principles for votes (see the scandalous decision to subsidize yet again the asbestos industry, condemned worldwide as a killer); an instinct for an opponent’s soft spots; a realization that over the long haul, politics is not comprised of permanent friends but of permanent interests, namely being re-elected; a willingness to play roles as circumstances dictate, as in being a strong pan-Canadian in federal politics and a soft Quebec nationalist in provincial politics; an appreciation that today’s crises are either forgotten over time or can be turned into opportunities; and an intuitive understanding that in the dream palace of Quebec political society, the caution against unnecessary and foolish risk trumps the existential appeal of the glorious unknown.

Polls, the sorcery of pundits, are as ubiquitous in the media as they are useless. Quebec society is in a transition – the destination of which is not easily discerned. For some, secession remains the shimmering objective, the realization of which is like a future that never comes. For others, a more equal society, with an ever-larger role for an engorged state, would display further Quebec’s admirable solidarité, except that the province in pursuit of that solidarité has indebted itself beyond what is reasonable. For still others, all parties and the entire political system seem somehow – it is hard to define precisely – out of sync with the times.

Change is therefore in the air, witness to which was the province’s sudden shift to the New Democratic Party in the last federal election and its brief flirtation with a new party of inchoate definition, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec (CAQ), led by a former Parti Québécois minister of note who pledged not to talk about secession for a decade while concentrating on economic and social questions.

As long as the CAQ had few candidates and a vague platform, its popularity blossomed, after which, as details became somewhat clearer about where it stood and whom it would present as candidates, the bloom faded.

There is another rather new party, Québec solidaire, quite far on the left and therefore a threat to siphon votes from the Parti Québécois. Quebec solidaire is therefore one of Mr. Charest’s best allies. Far from praising the party, he will denounce its allies, the students who took to the streets throughout the spring.

Quebec seems à la recherche, but of what and to where? Mr. Charest, defying the odds by running a fourth time, hopes the search will grudgingly lead to stability and, therefore, again to him.

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