David Mitchell is a Calgary-based author and Canadian historian.
“There’s no damned way I’ll be supporting a 35-year-old Quebecker to be my prime minister!”
I still remember hearing that scoffing dismissal from a Western business leader in 1993 when a young Jean Charest was seeking to lead the governing federal Progressive Conservatives, after Brian Mulroney stepped down.
In fact, Mr. Charest had actually already built an impressive political resume to that point. He became the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history only a couple of years after being elected as an MP at 26. He brought energy, passion and charm to several cabinet portfolios prior to Mr. Mulroney’s resignation and the fateful leadership race to succeed him.
Mr. Charest finished second in that contest to Kim Campbell, but he went on to become party leader by default when the 1993 election, just a few months later, wiped out all but two Progressive Conservatives from the House – leaving him as the only Tory cabinet minister to keep his seat.
But there were more political adventures in store for him. During the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, Mr. Charest played a prominent role as a leader of the “No” campaign, which very narrowly defeated the Bloc Québécois’s efforts to steer the province out of Canada.
Three years later, he gave in to extraordinary public pressure and left federal politics to lead the Quebec Liberal Party – the only viable federalist option in Quebec. In 2003, at the age of 45, he became premier, a post he held for almost a decade, fending off separatists and manoeuvring his way through numerous conflicts and controversies.
Now, after spending another 10 years with a private sector law firm, he’s seeking to return to federal politics as the prospective leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
In a field that includes a number of current MPs, Mr. Charest stands apart. His unique political history and unrivalled experience surely make him a top contender for the party’s leadership. Nevertheless, he will need to overcome a number of obstacles and a noteworthy political curse to win.
One obstacle is the perception that he is yesterday’s man. Critics have asked whether Canadian politics have now passed him by. Indeed, the Conservatives today are very different from the Progressive Conservatives that Mr. Charest once led. His views are more mainstream and his style more moderate than many of his opponents in the race.
And yet, at 63, he remains vigorous and engaged. And although a new generation of party activists may be unaware of his formidable skills, Mr. Charest represents an opportunity to move the Conservatives back into the mainstream. To date, his pitch is exactly that: He’s capable of leading them away from their growing reputation as a party of grievance and protest in order to form government.
From the outside, it seems compelling. But is it enough?
The curse he faces concerns our country’s political past: perhaps surprisingly, no provincial premier has ever gone on to win a federal election to become Canada’s prime minister. (John Thompson and Charles Tupper had served as premiers of Nova Scotia before becoming prime minister in 1892 and 1896 respectively, but both were named to the post by the governor-general at the time.)
A primary obstacle may be that to be a successful premier, it’s essential to position oneself as a strong, even fierce, defender of provincial rights. This militates against the development of a national, unifying vision.
Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan and Robert Stanfield of Nova Scotia – both impressive politicians – attempted the cross-jurisdictional leap; neither succeeded, though Mr. Stanfield came close in 1972. Two other highly respected provincial premiers, Ontario’s Bill Davis and Alberta’s Peter Lougheed, were often urged to make the switch to the federal stage. Both demurred, and wisely, I think. Leaders so strongly associated with a single province or region of the country aren’t easily trusted or embraced on a pan-Canadian scale.
Could Mr. Charest overcome this hurdle? His career path is certainly unique, and his electoral track record impressive. It’s one of the reasons why the current Conservative leadership contest, to be decided in September, is so interesting and potentially decisive for Canada.
Politicians and political parties are infamous for proclaiming that whatever election, leadership race or contest they’re involved in is the “most important of our lifetime.” However, in the case of Jean Charest, no other recent or current candidate for public office will likely do more to decide the future shape of Canadian politics.
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