If anyone thought Jean Charest was going to go down without a fight, think again.
Nearing midterm, mired in allegations of corruption and unethical practices, the Quebec Premier delivered an assertive and forward-looking inaugural speech in the National Assembly on Wednesday, proposing an ambitious program that he hopes will give his battered government a new lease on life.
Mr. Charest invited Quebeckers to set aside the acrimonious debates that have crippled his government over the first half of its mandate and look to his Liberals to deliver prosperity
"In our debates we are often harsh on ourselves. … Making the right decisions demands that we have the right outlook, an outlook that is free from complacency and denigration," Mr. Charest said.
But the task won't be easy. Urging voters to take a leap of faith in a government whose disapproval rating was at a record 77 per cent, according to a recent public opinion poll, may well turn into an insurmountable challenge.
Any chance of success may hinge on Mr. Charest's ability to deliver quickly on his new commitments. His proposals for the development of electric cars, newly discovered oil and gas reserves and Northern Quebec's mining potential will take years to pay political dividends to help boost his party's sagging fortunes.
In Wednesday's speech, the Premier announced a bold initiative, one that he hopes will portray him as a great environmentalist. He announced the electrification of public-transit vehicles and a strategy to encourage consumers to buy electric and hybrid cars. Quebec, he said, will reduce its dependence on fossil fuels over the next ten years from 38 per cent of total consumption to 32 per cent.
"It is in the order of things that we become the first in the world to pave the way for electric vehicles," Mr. Charest said.
Prosperity for the province, he predicted, will be generated through the investment "of dozens of billions of dollars" and the creation of "tens of thousands of jobs" through the development of Northern Quebec over the next 25 years.
Yet while promoting cleaner air, Mr. Charest encouraged the development of natural resources, including fossil fuels that he contends Quebeckers will need to pay for costly social services. He promised increased royalties from mining and shale gas development. He also announced his plan to strike a deal with Ottawa to develop the Old Harry oil deposit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Old Harry prospect is the largest untapped hydrocarbon reserve in Eastern Canada. A deal with Ottawa, he insisted, must ensure that Quebec becomes "the principal beneficiary" of the offshore oil bonanza.
Wealth generated from these projects will be used mainly to reduce the province's debt, he said.
And in pursuing his vision of a bilingual Quebec, Mr. Charest announced francophone students will spend half their final year of grade school in an intensive English-language program.
A federalist at heart, the Premier served notice to Ottawa that striking deals with Quebec is in the best interest of both the province and the country.
"Because one fact remains: Quebeckers are the co-authors of the history of this country and Canada is at its best when it marches ahead influenced by Quebec," Mr. Charest said.
Those words appeared as a forerunner to a debate that has been gradually unfolding in Quebec over the province's political future. With the PQ threatening to take power in the next election, Mr. Charest served a warning that he alone could best fend off the separatist threat.
The national unity argument still remains Mr. Charest's main drawing card as party leader. But if his popularity fails to improve in the next six months, that too may slowly fade, leaving Mr. Charest with a difficult decision about his political future when his leadership comes up for review at next October's party convention.
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