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Former Premier of Quebec Jean Charest speaks about former Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chretien on his 80th birthday in Toronto on Jan. 21, 2014.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In politics, it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between experience and baggage.

For Jean Charest, the former federal Progressive Conservative leader turned former Quebec Liberal premier, a decision to seek the leadership of the Conservative Party would hinge on whether more Tories and Canadians would see his record as an asset rather than as a liability.

Canada is experiencing a leadership vacuum that has left the country more divided and directionless than many of us can remember. The mediocrity of our political class is a cross-party problem: The Liberals are running on fumes, the Tories are on empty and the NDP is out of gas.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the trucker-led protests against COVID-19 restrictions has left Canada with a black eye internationally and more Canadians worrying about the future of their country. It is unclear whether Mr. Trudeau has either the will or ability to change that.

Meanwhile, the front-runner to replace Erin O’Toole as Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, is a wind-up toy of a politician who spouts rhetoric popular with undergraduate Ayn Rand admirers but whose reckless and divisive discourse makes Mr. Trudeau look like a safe bet. Mr. Poilievre’s almost giddy support for the trucker protests alone proves him unfit to be prime minister.

It says a lot about the current state of the Conservative Party that about a quarter of its MPs have already endorsed Mr. Poilievre. Persuaded that, in the social media age, there really is no such thing as bad publicity, some are clearly hoping to ride Mr. Poilievre’s coattails to higher profiles within the party. Few seem to be asking critical questions about his leadership qualities, such as whether he could manage a caucus of more than 100 MPs, much less an entire country.

As far as his experience goes, Mr. Poilievre’s two-year stint as minister of democratic reform in Stephen Harper’s last government yielded the widely discredited Fair Elections Act, a crassly partisan piece of legislation with Trumpist overtones (before Trumpism was even a thing) and whose provisions were almost entirely repealed by the Liberals.

A sense of desperation at the prospect of a Poilievre coronation helps explain why four Conservative MPs this week called on Mr. Charest to consider jumping into the race. Not that he needed nudging: He began working the phones almost as soon as Mr. O’Toole stepped down.

“We need someone who is able to unite our party and rally a majority of Canadians in both official languages,” wrote Quebec MPs Alain Rayes and Dominique Vien, Nova Scotia MP Rick Perkins, Ontario MP John Nater, and four current and former Tory operatives.

But while Mr. Poilievre’s résumé is thin enough to spare him from having to run defence for most of a Conservative leadership campaign, the opposite is true for Mr. Charest. He would be forced to account for his nearly decade-long run as Quebec premier, including his fight for higher equalization payments, his government’s adoption of legislation placing strict limits on freedom of assembly after student protests turned violent in 2012, and his strong championing of carbon pricing.

Then there is the advisory work Mr. Charest and his law firm did on behalf of Chinese telecom giant Huawei during the extradition case involving Meng Wanzhou – not a good look for a potential Tory leader, though not one that would bother Canada’s business community, which continues to favour closer trade ties with China.

Mr. Charest would also face questions about the illegal financing scandal that engulfed the Quebec Liberal Party while he was leader. Despite an eight-year-long investigation, the province’s anti-corruption squad has not laid any charges against Mr. Charest. But the whiff of scandal still hangs over him – unfairly, in his view.

And there are the inevitable charges that he is not a real conservative, especially from Mr. Harper, who has never forgiven Mr. Charest for criticizing federal cuts to arts funding during the 2008 election campaign. Some Tories still believe the criticism cost their party several seats in Quebec, and possibly a majority government.

Mr. Charest, who came close to running for the Tory leadership in 2020, is under no illusions about the uphill battle he would face to win the leadership of a federal party that is quite unlike the one he led before being drafted to take the helm of the federalist Quebec Liberals in the wake of the 1995 sovereignty referendum. He would need to recruit thousands of new Tories, and that would take time and money.

Still, this is hardly Mr. Charest’s first rodeo. And among the list of potential leadership rivals, there is no one with his political talent, stature and experience. His mere participation would up the ante for a party in dire need of adult supervision.

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