If Jean Charest had his way, he would talk about nothing but the Plan Nord during the Quebec election campaign.
It's the topic on which he is most proactive, promising it will play a key role in fulfilling the main plank in his platform: creating 250,000 jobs by 2017 if he forms the next government.
The Plan Nord is more than the Quebec Liberal Leader's priority for a fourth mandate. The ambitious, 25-year, $80-billion economic program to develop natural resources in the province's north is designed to be his main legacy. Launched during his third term in office, the Plan Nord is supposed to be to Mr. Charest what the massive James Bay hydro-electric project was to his predecessor, Robert Bourassa, in the 1970s.
Not surprisingly, most of Mr. Charest's daily announcements are somehow linked to the Plan Nord and job creation, such as a promise to introduce Plan Nord RRSPs and to offer more long-distance training in fields such as mining and forestry. Most of his industrial visits – he does one a day – are linked to his dream of northern riches.
Still, there is no guarantee Mr. Charest will still be in power after the Sept. 4 election. Every day of the campaign, he has to bat away questions about other issues, from student protests to allegations of widespread corruption to the threat of a third referendum on sovereignty. On Friday, he had to deal with negative poll numbers, which show his Quebec Liberals in trouble, especially with the francophone electorate that has an overwhelming sway in a majority of ridings.
But whatever else is thrown at him by his adversaries and the media, Mr. Charest still talks about the Plan Nord every day, frequently arguing that the project "would be in jeopardy" if either the Parti Québécois or the Coalition Avenir Quebec were to form the next government.
The Plan Nord includes tourism and agricultural projects, but the main planks are mining, forestry and energy projects, including more hydro-electricity with the ongoing development of La Romaine. The taxes and royalties from the project, he argues, are essential to sustaining the province's health-care and education system.
At every campaign stop, Mr. Charest boasts about the Quebec economy and how it came out of the 2008 economic crisis in better shape than most of the western world. The unemployment rate is at 7.7 per cent in Quebec, and economists have basically said that the promise of 250,000 jobs, and a 6-per-cent unemployment rate by 2017, is feasible.
"We want to achieve full employment, and we're putting the measures into place to achieve it," he said on Friday.
One of the Liberals' key messages is that the Plan Nord not only generates jobs in the north, but also in the south of the province where companies offer services to mining firms, for example, or ship goods such as modular houses north of the 49th parallel.
Mr. Charest won a majority in the 2008 election by promising a steady, experienced government that would have "both hands on the steering wheel" to go through the global recession.
He is now promising something more ambitious as he gambles on a summertime election to remain in power. Still, the project remains vague for many electors. The area directly encompassed by the Plan Nord comprises 72 per cent of the province's territory – but only includes 2 per cent of the Quebec population.