Hébert: Can Charest keep his world from crashing down?
Published On Mon Nov 22 2010
By Chantal Hébert National Columnist
With his government barely at mid-mandate, all that stands between Premier Jean Charest and forced retirement is the loyalty of his caucus — but for how long?
Against the threat of a confidence vote in the National Assembly later this week, Charest and his advisers spent the weekend contemplating two equally unpalatable alternatives.
The premier can reverse himself and set up a public inquiry into political corruption — at the risk of inflicting on his party the kind of lasting damage endured by the federal Liberal brand as a result of the Gomery commission into the sponsorship scandal.
Or he can continue to resist virtually unanimous calls for an inquiry and submit his government’s unity to an open-ended stress test in the process.
Neither route is likely to lead to a re-election victory. But calling an inquiry has become the avenue most likely to buy the premier time to regroup and, if it comes to that, prepare for an orderly leadership transition.
The alternative could be chaos along the lines of the mess unfolding in British Columbia in the wake of Premier Gordon Campbell’s sudden resignation earlier this month.
There still have been no public cracks in the facade of Liberal support for the premier but Charest is skating on ever-thinning ice as he continues to try to whistle his way past a mounting pile of evidence of political corruption involving the province’s construction industry.
With Quebec’s investigative journalism industry working overtime on the ethics file and digging up more dirt every day, the notion that the government can still hope to change the channels at the flick of a policy switch is finding few takers, even within Liberal ranks.
The daily governance of the province increasingly takes places in a climate that at least one commentator has likened to anarchy.
In the absence of a formal process to distinguish truth from spin, the media and the courts have emerged as default venues for the corruption debate and both are ultimately unsuited to the exercise.
If Charest had to head into a snap provincial election this week, he would risk leading his party to a historic defeat.
His party’s shrinking support is heavily concentrated in the staunchly federalist anglophone and allophone pockets of the province.
In francophone regions, the Parti Québécois enjoys a double-digit lead and the premier has become the lightning rod for widespread discontent.
Over a single week, an online petition calling his resignation has already garnered more than 200,000 names, a record in Quebec history.
In spite of it all, Charest has so far been able to exact extraordinary discipline from his party and caucus. (That could change if the Liberals lose a long-held seat in a by-election next week.)
His success to date on the front of party unity has led to comparisons to his mentor, Brian Mulroney.
Between 1988 and 1993 the then Conservative prime minister commanded the loyalty of his caucus (minus those who left with Lucien Bouchard to create the Bloc Québécois) through some very though times.
But Mulroney had a more comfortable majority than the Liberal premier. It would take only a handful of renegade Liberals — less than half a dozen — for Charest to lose the confidence of the National Assembly.
And moreover it did not pay the Tories to so faithfully follow Mulroney. They were decimated in the following election.
The 1993 demise of the Mulroney/Campbell Tories had profound consequences on the national landscape. So would that of the Quebec Liberals. They are the country’s first vanguard against sovereignty and increasingly its only real one.
With the federal Liberals a spent force in francophone Quebec and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives a marginal presence, the destruction (self-destruction?) of Charest’s Liberal party would leave Quebec with no party, federally or provincially, that truly bridges its two solitudes.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Pour les lâches, la liberté est toujours extrémiste. (Pierre Falardeau)
[For the cowards freedom is for the extremist.]