Charest's First Year as Premier

JEAN CHAREST won power in Quebec City just a year ago on April 14, a hotshot young leader heralding a new era of neo-conservative change. But he is a much different story today: a humbled and seriously discredited premier. His first year in office was marred by inexperience, blunders, controversy, protests and intense voter dissatisfaction. With four more years ahead of him, and, luckily, a Parti Québécois opposition in disarray despite its favourable polls, Charest has chosen a radical option: starting over. In March he tabled a budget with social-democratic leanings, and announced an anti-poverty policy that has drawn reluctant kudos from the left and puzzled his neo-con supporters. Charest also ripped a page out of the PQ book and invited the public to "consultation forums" across the province.

After six long years of touring the boonies and enduring potshots from the previous PQ government, Charest thought he was done morphing - from former federal Tory deputy prime minister into a homegrown Liberal leader in Quebec. "We are ready," was his slogan - but he wasn't. "There is no prep school to groom you for the surprises that await you in government," he told Maclean's in a recent interview. "Words take a different meaning when they are spoken from the premier's chair. The impact is not the same. Sometimes, you make decisions that trigger consequences that were totally unexpected. That's part of the learning curve."

It's been a sharp one, for him and his mostly rookie cabinet. According to the polls, if an election were held now Charest's Liberals would be back in opposition, having lost a full 10 per cent of their support since the election. "Charest has totally muffed his opportunity of making a favourable first impression on voters," says Jean-Jacques Stréliski, a respected communications expert in Montreal. "Quebecers want a father-figure premier, someone who is above the fray. Many still perceive him as a member of the opposition."

Charest is learning, the hard way, the secret of survival in Quebec politics as exemplified by René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa before him: Quebec voters are one stubborn flock, and the only way to succeed is to lead them exactly where they want to go. It's not how Charest initially approached his new job. "I am an activist - I do believe in progress through political action," he says. "I am here because I want to do things, change things." So he hit the deck running, pushing an alarmist and conservative agenda, promising to "re-engineer" the way the government operates.

Leaving no sacred cow untouched, the new premier said the time of state intervention - a result of the province's fabled Quiet Revolution of the '60s - was over. His approach jolted Quebec's powerful public sector unions onto the warpath. But Charest plodded on, hiking hydro and daycare fees, cooking up laws to reform the labour code and open the door to outsourcing, while saying voters had given him "a clear mandate for change."

As it turned out, they'd just been fed up with nine turbulent years of the PQ. Charest's strategy backfired: his obstinacy turned his opponents into dedicated enemies - and his supporters into squirming skeptics. That's about when a fateful poll landed. "Charest hijacks his mandate," a headline blared in January in Le Devoir: according to Léger Marketing, more than 60 per cent of voters thought Charest had no mandate to run the province the way he was. "He saw the vote as an active endorsement while, in fact, what voters did was dump the PQ out of office," says pollster Jean-Marc Léger. "Charest was giving them more than they had bargained for, and they told him in the poll."

Charest made himself scarce for several weeks. "They took him to the garage for a complete overhaul," joked one veteran reporter covering the National Assembly. The most important thing re-engineered during the Liberals' first year was the premier himself. The new and improved Jean Charest, who surfaced last month, is patient, understanding, soft-spoken, all smiles. Above all, he has boiled down his message to manageable chunks. "The cost of running the government is rising faster than the revenues, and we cannot hike taxes. So how should we go about it?" he now asks. Same agenda, but a new approach. "I have never had any doubt that the changes we are putting forward would trigger a massive outcry, and that's why we moved swiftly early on in the mandate," Charest says. "But obviously, the social unrest that followed has shaken many people, even among those who agreed with us that change is necessary."

No matter how "ready" Charest thought he was, the fact remains that his previous experience was in federal politics - a different ball game. "The ball bounces back much faster at the provincial level, because we are closer to the people," he says. "And things are different in Quebec because government is also about identity. Here, it is possible for opponents of a specific policy to wrap themselves in the flag and call you a traitor. Things can get very personal here. I had to learn that, too."

So, the field is set for the second inning - with crucial public-sector contract talks in the offing. The players are the same, but the strategy is different. While Charest is rapidly shifting left, union leaders such as Henri Massé of the Fédération des Travailleurs du Québec are putting on a suit and a tie, repeating in interviews and speeches that unions too are concerned with the budget, the deficit, the fiscal rating of the province. "I am not the conservative in this, I am not the one fighting to preserve the status quo - the unions are," Charest says. The next part of the game will be between the socialist-right in government, and the conservative-left, perhaps on the picket lines. Only in Quebec.

Maclean's April 26, 2004