Log Cabin Chronicles

Peter Scowen

The Interim Saviour


hey jean, where'd you get that grin?

Now that the saviour is back in town, it's time to get a pool going. Anyone can participate. The ante is 25 cents, payable to me. All money will be held in trust in my top drawer until a winner is declared, or until I need some change for a root beer.

The bet: How long before Jean Charest starts sounding exactly like Robert Bourassa? The stakes: Another 10 years of the same old shit, plus root beer money.

My bet: July, 1999. That's when Charest, the freshly elected premier of Quebec, will announce that he sees no reason to rule out the possibility of another referendum on sovereignty if Canada fails to make a significant offer to his province and its people.

The similarities between Charest and Bourassa are already there. Like Bourassa did when he came back to win the Quebec Liberal Party leadership in 1983, Charest has rejuvenated his political career by jumping onto the QLP bandwagon. And, like Bourassa, Charest is focusing his message on putting aside the sovereignty question and working to improve Quebec's economy. Those who have a memory not completely debilitated by MTV will recall that Bourassa pushed the same message in the 1985 election campaign. He promised good management in the hands of competent businessmen he recruited from Quebec's merchant ranks: Paul Gobeil, Pierre MacDonald and others whose names now escape me. Bourassa also set up deregulation and privatization committees that were, in retrospect, a foretaste of the neo-liberal government bashing of the current era.

And how long did that last? Bourassa did nothing for the deficit or the debt, he didn't create the 50,000 jobs a year he promised, and he embroiled Quebec and Canada in its most serious constitutional crisis by imposing the notwithstanding clause. He even made the startling boast that no Quebec premier had impinged personal freedoms as much as he had in the defense of the French language.

So bring on Jean Charest, with his "it's the economy, stupid" message, and let's see how long before he gets sucked into the black hole of the Quebec/Canada contradiction. With the Parti Québécois doing its bit to keep Charest on the defensive about his fealty to this province, it won't take long. July 1999 is beginning to look naive. I'm changing my bet to November of this year and upping the ante to one dollar.

Two things guarantee me a good chance of winning my own pool. First off, no, it's NOT the economy, stupid - it's Quebec's place in Canada. This has to be settled one way or the other. You can press all the businessmen you can fit around a board-room table into the service of the province's economy, but at some point their premier will be distracted by that nasty constitutional question, and all their efforts will be moot. This has happened to every Quebec government that has tried to focus on the economy, and it will happen to Charest.

The other nemesis hovering over Charest is his lack of ideology. As leader of the Progressive Conservative party, he oversaw the departure of a significant number of young Tories lured away by the more passionate conservative antics of the Reform Party. Charest is a centrist, a good old-fashioned Red Tory, which means he's probably a little to the left of the federal Liberals at this point. Or would be, if anyone were able to actually pin him down.

Charest has never been burdened with the vision thing. He went into politics at age 25 because he was charming and because the Sherbrooke Tory establishment - including his father and the publisher of the Sherbrooke Record, George MacLaren - handed him a riding on a platter.

I was a rookie reporter at the Record in 1984, the year of the Mulroney sweep; MacLaren's editor dispatched fresh-faced me to interview the Tory candidate in Sherbrooke. It was love at first sight. The guy was my age, but more worldly, flattering as all hell, and if he gave me a reason for running, it didn't matter. Here was a man I just wanted to see in politics: undogmatic, naturally talented, funny, laid-back.

Since then, Charest has floated. He has done the jobs assigned to him with varying degrees of success, and overcame a relatively minor (in Mulroney terms) scandal involving a phone call to a judge. He subsequently rose to the top of the PC party the way a submerged cork rises to the surface of the water, popping up when there were no longer anything to hold him down. His talents have never really been tested, perhaps until now. And thus far into his big Quebec adventure, he's been a disappointment.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the economy is important. So is the ability to walk, but walking around with chains on your feet is somewhat pointless. Quebec is weighed down by the question of its place in Canada. What is Charest's plan? How is he going to settle the constitutional question? More hearings? Another closed-door deal with the other premiers? With empty words like "reconciliation," "solidarity" and "include"?

If that's the case - and so far he hasn't shown any sign of possessing an original thought on the subject - Charest is no saviour. He's just filler, a little light entertainment between now and the next Parti Québécois government.

Let the betting begin.

Peter Scowen is editor of Montreal's Hour Magazine. His columns are republished with permission.

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