During nearly three decades in public life, Jean Charest has faced more forks in the road than most politicians. Yet each time the exit ramp beckoned, he chose to drive on by.
So few observers were really surprised when the Quebec Liberal Leader opted to tempt fate and seek a fourth term in office rather than bow out midway into his third mandate. That decision, which soon became impossible to reverse, will now determine his legacy.
As he fights for re-election amid corruption allegations, the worst social unrest in decades and record voter dissatisfaction with his nine-year-old government, Mr. Charest might seem in need of a miracle. But it was his own inertia that brought him to this point.
Friends say Mr. Charest would have jumped to accept a prestigious international appointment. But his relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper is at best distant, and Ottawa would have had to lobby on his behalf for him to get a plum nomination.
As the months rolled on, it became too late for Mr. Charest to quit anyway. He had to stay and fight, in part to avoid the perception that this spring’s student strife had gotten the better of him. But mostly he could not leave under a cloud of suspicion.
“The corruption accusations have stung,” explained one politically connected Quebec business source. “He may prefer to defend himself while the stage is his rather than rely on his successor to do so.”
When he became Liberal Leader in 1998, Mr. Charest inherited a fundraising machine in which firms reliant on public contracts loomed large. While Quebec banned corporate donations to political parties in 1977, individuals in the engineering and construction industries have retained critical roles in helping fill party coffers. Mr. Charest, who is not personally accused of wrongdoing, may simply have accepted an entrenched system as a given. But it has left him vulnerable as the inquiry he appointed, after months of stonewalling, prepares to delve back into corruption allegations days after the Sept. 4 vote.
Mr. Charest’s electoral survival might not be so much in jeopardy if he still had the undivided support of the Quebec business community, traditionally the bedrock of Liberal governments. But some influential business leaders have soured on him.
“There remains a ‘wet blanket’ label attached to him,” said one.
In both the 1998 election, which Mr. Charest lost to then-Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, and his successful 2003 campaign, the Liberals promised radical pro-business reforms to shrink government and undo the province’s restrictive labour laws.
While Mr. Charest introduced modest labour reforms in his first year in office, massive protests against those “neoliberal” measures by Quebec’s unions led him to abandon his reform agenda. The leader who set out to gut the “Quebec model” ended up reinforcing it.
While the Liberals campaigned in 2003 promising to cut taxes by $1-billion annually, the relief, when it came, was overwhelmingly directed at low-income earners. The tax burden on middle-class Quebeckers, the highest on the continent, barely budged.
Facing defeat in the 2007 election, Mr. Charest again promised tax relief, vowing to return to Quebec taxpayers all of a $700-million annual windfall received from Ottawa in the dying days of the campaign to eliminate the so-called fiscal imbalance.
But without accompanying spending cuts, the tax reductions were not sustainable. Mr. Charest’s Liberals have since raised the provincial sales tax by two percentage points and implemented a $200-per-taxpayer health tax, essentially reversing the 2007 cuts.
“In the end, Jean Charest ‘Quebecized’ himself,” explained Christian Dufour, a political scientist at l’École nationale d’administration publique in Montreal. “He learned that, to hold on to power in Quebec, you can’t change things too much.”
That was amply demonstrated by the reaction to his government’s proposed increases in university tuition, the lowest on the continent. But his business critics say the crisis might have been averted had Mr. Charest been willing to stand his ground from the outset of his premiership and implement the reform agenda he first campaigned on.
In his current term, Mr. Charest has won praise from economists for controlling spending better than most premiers and adopting a promising, if insufficient, plan to slow the growth in the province’s debt, now equivalent to 55 per cent of gross domestic product.
But if Liberals are now in a three-way race with the PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec, it is in part because many onetime Charest backers in the small and big business sectors long ago stopped believing he is serious about tackling the tax and debt burdens.
They may have unrealistic expectations about what any Quebec premier can achieve in a province with more sacred cows than most. And Mr. Charest may just have a better handle on what most Quebeckers actually want than his critics in business and academe.
Besides, if his only legacy is beating the modern-day record for political longevity, he would likely be quite happy with that.
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