Skip to main content

A page of the inaugural speech of Quebec's Premier Jean Charest is seen at the National Assembly in Quebec City February 23, 2011.Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Few things seem to amuse the Quebec Premier more than the suggestion that he's done.

When the topic of his political survival comes up - and it has constantly since he moved to lead the Quebec Liberals in 1998 - Jean Charest breaks into a smile and reminds his questioner that he's overcome such adversity many times in the past.

Over his 27-year career, he has indeed authored many comebacks, from resignation early in his federal career, from his leadership of a rump federal Conservative Party in the 1990s, from his 1998 defeat in his first provincial campaign.

He's been chastened by a slim minority victory in 2007 and overcome persistently low personal popularity among Quebeckers to become the first premier in 50 years to serve three consecutive terms.

If he remains in office, Mr. Charest will pass René Lévesque on the all-time longevity list in a year.

Here are some of the self-preservation techniques that have emerged during Mr. Charest's reign:

1. Find the mushy middle ground - and if there isn't any, make it up

Mr. Charest may be the king of finding solutions that satisfy few but avoid triggering open revolt.

On accommodating minorities, he is blasted by nationalists for being too soft. Yet fans of multiculturalism shudder at gestures ostensibly aimed at improving integration and equality, such as restrictions on wearing veils in public institutions.

Mr. Charest's government has also carefully cultivated ambiguity on oil and gas exploration, imposing a moratorium on drilling in the St. Lawrence Estuary to appease environmentalists while vigorously promoting it in the St. Lawrence Valley to chase royalty revenue and jobs. When protests against gas-drilling practices there got too loud recently, the government suddenly shifted tone, telling the industry to get its act together, or else.

Mr. Charest has spent nearly two years refusing to hold an inquiry into allegations of corruption in government and Quebec's construction industry, despite overwhelming public support for such hearings. Instead, he's offered half measures, including a limited inquiry into the nomination of judges that was slightly off the main topic and a beefed-up police corruption squad that has made few arrests so far. Last week, he made the anti-corruption unit permanent.

2. Luck into weak opponents and hit the campaign trail

It's been a long time since a Quebec Liberal leader had such a long and easy run of unproven or unloved opponents leading the Parti Québécois. In 2007, Mr. Charest won only a minority, ceding huge swaths of territory to the Action Démocratique du Québec, but he relegated the PQ's hopelessly green André Boisclair to a humiliating third place. Mr. Boisclair never got another chance. He quickly resigned.

In 2008, Pauline Marois seemed a more formidable foe with her vast experience, but charmed few voters with her upper-class image. Mr. Charest won a majority once again.

Ms. Marois will likely be the opponent when the Liberals go to the polls next. What remains to be determined is whether Mr. Charest remains in charge of the party until 2012.

3. When possible, do nothing

Mr. Charest's last big comeback was in 2008, when he won a majority after 20 months of minority rule, a term dominated by symbolic gestures.

He struck a commission on reasonable accommodation that gave Quebeckers a chance to vent. A report released in May, 2008, offered a long list of recommendations - most of which were ignored.

Mr. Charest got some deserved credit for another symbolic move, naming women to half of the government's cabinet positions for the first time in history. But this was far from laying the foundation for any bold new policy initiative. The government followed a strict communications plan to lay low and avoid any policy that might create controversy. Mr. Charest got his majority back in December, 2008.

4. Choose expediency over ideals

Early in his first mandate, Mr. Charest promised to restructure Quebec to lower its tax burden, get rid of bureaucracy and change labour codes to loosen the grip of unions. Many plans were scaled back in the face of fierce resistance.

For years, Mr. Charest badgered the federal government to address the so-called fiscal imbalance so Quebec could pay for precious social programs. When Ottawa shipped $700-million to Quebec City in new equalization payments during the 2007 provincial election campaign, Mr. Charest turned around and blew the wad on tax cuts.

Mr. Charest flip-flops as frequently as any government leader. But he has often delayed the change of course until the policy shift blows up into major controversy.

In 2004, the government planned to build a small gas-fired electricity plant. In 2005, his government agreed to allow extraordinary funding for a handful of Jewish private schools. In 2006, the Liberals wanted to sell a chunk of the Mont Orford provincial park and ski resort for condo development, all while expanding the park in other areas. In its latest budget, Mr. Charest's government wanted to impose a $25 user fee on visits to the doctor's office. All of those plans became deeply unpopular and were unceremoniously dumped.

5. Offer olive branches, but only when all else has failed

Mr. Charest is a deeply partisan politician with a big pugnacious streak, so contrition rarely ranks as a favoured tactic.

For 12 years, Mr. Charest received a $75,000 top-up in salary from his provincial Liberal Party. The money was kept secret until 2007. For the following three years, he brushed off accusations of an appearance of conflict of interest. The opposition howled that being on the payroll of a major political fundraising operation like the Liberal Party could interfere with his job as Premier.

Mr. Charest finally gave up the cash last spring as a symbolic gesture to break an opposition logjam over ethics legislation. The bill passed.

A swift kick from the Quebec electorate has occasionally helped Mr. Charest reach out. After his narrow minority win in 2007, he admitted the public had delivered a "severe judgment" and promised to "draw lessons from what we've been through." Mr. Charest even promised to listen to his opponents, promptly taking sections of the ADQ platform. Popular policies aimed at helping families, regions and the middle class helped set up his majority win (and the decimation of the ADQ) 20 months later.

Mr. Charest repeated the technique in Wednesday's speech, borrowing several ADQ education policies. Mr. Charest will introduce an intensive English program for Grade 6 francophone students and a civics course and school uniforms to create a more polished and polite next generation.

The stage is now set for the next comeback attempt.

Editor's Note: Jean Charest is the first Quebec premier in 50 years to serve three consecutive terms, but he is a year short of René Lévesque's 8 years and 10 months in office. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper version of this story and an earlier online version. This online version has been corrected.