Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



The accidental tourist

My suggested title for the sequel to I Choose Quebec,Jean Charest's autobiography: I Lose Quebec.

Charest almost certainly will have time, as of December 1, to work on another installment of his memoirs while he bides his time on the opposition benches. That is, if he wins his Sherbrooke seat Monday; otherwise he might be looking for new job, presumably one that doesn't demand such ritualistic public torture.

So, as the erstwhile boy wonder slips towards the abyss of electoral purgatory, dispatched by a grateful Lucien Bouchard, Charest has to be asking himself where it all went wrong. He will have plenty of help in his reflection as already legions of pundits and politicos are trotting out their particular pre-mortems.

Although few paid attention back in the spring when Charest was being wooed by national unity headhunters, some party-poopers wondered aloud how the man whose life-long ambition was to be prime minister of Canada could be transformed overnight into the champion of Quebec's interests. This screaming conflict of interest seemed to be drowned out in the hosannas hailing Canada's savior.

Charest did try to make the point during the leaders' debate that on many occasions he's put his defense of Quebec ahead of his personal or political interests. That, however, does not amount to much compared to Bouchard, who has a closet-full of shredded shirts to attest to his battles on behalf of his people.

The Liberal leader was sunk from the start by his lack of credibility amongst the huge block of francophones who are not necessarily sovereignists, but nevertheless fret for their linguistic security. The Liberals started the campaign trailing the PQ badly among francophones and that gap actually widened as Bouchard beat the tribal drums throughout the campaign.

Bouchard's much-lamented, but well-scripted, misspeak that Charest doesn't love Quebec was typical of the PQ's efforts to cast Charest as an accidental tourist in his home province.

Charest surely must have believed in his heart that he stood a chance of ousting Bouchard from the hearth of the Québécois soul. He placed his political life on the line, wagering that your average Quebecer was ready to step away from the dulling constitutional battles of the past thirty years if offered the right incentives, like tax cuts and prosperity.

He wanted to appeal to the generation of Quebecers for whom the bitter struggle over language is yesterday's news.

But that struggle is clearly not over in the minds of many Quebecers, at least not to the point where they are prepared to reject a mythic champion like Bouchard to embrace an unabashed federalist like Charest. This week's Le Devoir editorial - surprise, surprise - endorsing the PQ, expresses that critical doubt in the minds of a majority of francophone voters: "The ambiguities of Mr. Bouchard are more reassuring than the silence of Mr. Charest because we have at least the assurance that all doors will remain open." No secret that one of those doors is a sovereignty referendum.

As if Charest's image problems were not enough, his campaign has suffered from a series of no-brainer logistical mistakes one would not expect from a seasoned machine like the Quebec Liberal Party. Mistakes like not getting signs out to candidates in time or holding a huge rally on a day when campaign workers should have been getting out the vote for advance polls. There also was a delay in recruiting star candidates that squandered precious days - weeks even - in a startlingly short 33-day campaign.

Much of the campaign mayhem has been blamed on the people Charest brought to the Liberals from his former Tory apparatus, the so-called Sherbrooke Mafia. Party veterans say Charest's circle suffered from a lack of time to familiarize themselves with the QLP, its players, its workers and its culture. Their lack of focus, they say, resulted in a campaign that fired a shotgun blast of policies without potting many voting ducks.

It's a foregone conclusion that barring an eruption in the polls the PQ will capture anywhere from 80 to 100 seats on Monday. Given that situation, Charest's revised mission, the old Liberal hands say, is to keep the PQ vote from passing that magical threshold of 50 percent.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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