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The mystery of Jean Charest


 

Bottom's up!There’s a word for businesses whose fortunes don’t conform to dominant patterns, outfits like collection agencies or discount food chains that do their briskest business in recessions: counter-cyclical. I’m beginning to think Jean Charest is a counter-cyclical politician.

Consider the latest poll results that put the premier well ahead of his competitors. Even if we assume incumbents enjoy a natural advantage over challengers during the summer months, Charest’s feat is impressive. Over the past few months, his government has been saddled with bad news coming from virtually all sides: the Caisse de dépot’s bottom line is a mess; Hydro-Québec is taking flak for a handful of impolitic donations; the provincial budget is riddled with holes; on more than one occasion, the Liberals have found themselves tiptoeing around potential ethical scandals; and to top it all off, Charest has shed two key cabinet ministers over the past 18 months. And yet, his government has rarely been as popular as it is now. Even the normally loquacious PQ is downright stumped.

Now consider the circumstances under which Charest has struggled most. In 2003, he was elected with a healthy majority and a mandate to “re-engineer the state.” At the time, the province’s finances were in (relatively) good shape, the economy was still chugging along, and the spectre of a referendum had dimmed to near-invisibility. Charest’s only immediate challenge was to keep the peace with the angry suburbanites who were still miffed at the municipal mergers. But even that didn’t seem too daunting—what were they going to do, vote for the PQ? But then came the protests, the strikes, the plummeting poll numbers. Soon, the dominant question about Charest wasn’t whether he was doing a good job or a bad one, but whether he was doing the worst job in history.

The early days of Charest’s post-2007 minority government provide another case in point. In a bid to prop up Charest, Ottawa had handed him hundreds of millions of dollars just days before Quebecers went to the polls. Charest promptly turned around and promised to use $700 million of that money to fund tax cuts. Even though the figure was barely a fraction of the billions in cuts he had promised (and never delivered) in 2003, the gambit nearly cost him his government. The 2009 budget, by contrast, included a sales tax hike for 2011—and Charest is as popular as he’s ever been.

All of which got me thinking: Are there any other counter-cyclical politicians out there—that is, politicians for whom times are good when conventional wisdom suggests they shouldn’t be and vice-versa?


 

The mystery of Jean Charest

  1. Counter-cyclical my hairy… uh… head! Charest is where he is for two reason:

    – He did an awfully nice job, after 2007 near-death experience, of eating away the ADQ, who now stands at 8%. It's a fairly volatile electorate, but at least he has an option on it. Helluva job guys!

    – The return of the unadvertised / discrete voter. Except this time, they say they'll vote for Québec-Solidaire (8% in this poll) or the Greens (7%) and then, in the voting booth, turn around and vote PQ.

    Either way, the next couple of months will give us a pretty good idea of how much control Marois is actually exerting on the PQ.

  2. Hmm… You make interesting points, Namke…

    – FCARR actually doubled during Charest's first mandate, and most of the current infrastructure bonaza (wich helps keep us afloat in this current economic climate) will push it toward 10 billions (it stood at 3.9 in 2003). But the business community and "the middle class" seems pretty cool with that.

    – Re: Charest not being Blamed for budget problems. Indeed, he's pretty good at letting his finance ministers take the flak (Go ask Audet, Séguin, Jérôme-Forget and Bachand about that). Legault did have a field day taking potshots at them over the last session.

    – For a guy who can't wait to get rid of the deficit, he sure chose tax cuts over taking the debt down whenever he had a chance (go ask Harper about "fiscal imbalance").

    – Couillard was a pretty darn fine Health Care minister. We'll see with Bolduc.

    Your other points are pretty astute I think. But you underestimate Charest's tour-de-force after 2007 near-death experience by putting so much emphasis on the middle-class (who seems pretty apathetic toward politics these days, if you look at the ever sinking turnouts come election day).

    He was almost burned by the ADQ and saw how the nationalist element was still an active political force in Québec, even outside the traditional federalist/independatiste debate and did a helluva job of recalibrating his discourse toward a more nationalist stance, altough a far more muted, coherent and sensible one. Coupled with the PLQ traditional strength with everything petaining to the business comunity, he basically ate the ADQ alive. Jean D'Amours taking Mario Dumont's spot is a pretty strong sign to me.

    Those are quibbles, of course. We otherwise mostly agree. And your's a prtty darn fine website too!

    • @Olivier : Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Thinking about it, I would agree with your point that 2007 was a tour-de-force by Charest. You kind of solved a riddle for me : Why do I think that Charest is tough (in the good sense)? Looking back, it was probably the 2007 election where my opinion about him (and his utility to making Quebec a more successful international business partner) was formed. Thanks!

      I would also mention that some of the political tension in Canada may simply be caused by a 'bad translation from English into French'. Canada is a confederation of nations that united long ago to protect itself against invasions by the Americans. American foreign policy today demonstrates that small countries rich in natural resources are wise to have a strong defence policy (and lots of friends!). Each province in Canada has the right to raise taxes, its own police force, health care system, education system and even language. However, the word 'provincial' in the French language is actually an insult. Perhaps it is time for Canadian politicians and media to start using the term 'the co-nations of Canada' instead of 'provinces of Canada? This would better describe the political reality of the 'provinces' of Canada?

      And thank you for the kind comment about my Namke Learn Quebec French web site. I am hoping that French teachers outside of Quebec will start to teach 'the French of Quebec' as part of their French courses. It's fun! Shameless plug : If anybody else is interested in taking a look and my web site you can just click on my name above the comment. It links to the site (and a little Open Letter blog post that I wrote to La Flaque at Radio Canada :-)

      • "Canada is a confederation of nations that united long ago to protect itself against invasions by the Americans."

        Or is Canada a confederation of nations that have never really had to unite because America protects us from invasion?

  3. If Charest can continue to reinvent himself and can do something to win the respect of a national audience and if PM Harper decides to step aside in the next couple of years and if Charest wants it, you might want to consider him for next CPC leader.

  4. A couple of thoughts,

    Charest's performance and rating are also consistent with a state of affairs where everyone in Québec has quietly decided "apres moi, le deluge" and is voting on that assumption. (And yes, I do suspect that something akin to that is what is really going on. I would even go so far as to say that this assumption is just another way of saying "Québec is becoming more pragmatic".)

    If there is one thing I am pretty sure Charest is not doing it is positioning himself for a return to national politics. Outside of being past president of NAMBLA, I don't think there are many worse positions to launch a federal campaign from that of Premier of Quebec.

  5. I think it's a matter of the issue of the day switching from nationalist issues (which will always play better for the PQ or even ADQ) to more concrete concerns that are the Liberals bread and butter.

  6. I think it has to do with Pauline Marois's unpopularity.

    The "pragmatism" makes no sense considering BQ is gaining popularity on the federal side.

  7. A couple of thoughts,

    Charest's performance and rating are also consistent with a state of affairs where a lot of people in Québec have quietly decided "apres moi, le deluge" and are voting on that assumption. (And yes, I do suspect that something akin to that is what is really going on. I would even go so far as to say that this assumption is just another way of saying "Québec is becoming more pragmatic".)

    If there is one thing I am pretty sure Charest is not doing it is positioning himself for a return to national politics. Outside of being past president of NAMBLA, I don't think there are many worse positions to launch a federal campaign from that of Premier of Quebec.

  8. A couple of thoughts,

    Charest's performance and rating are also consistent with a state of affairs where a lot of people in Québec have quietly decided "apres moi, le deluge" and are voting on that assumption. (And yes, I do suspect that something akin to that is what is really going on. I would even go so far as to say that this assumption is just another way of saying "Québec is becoming more pragmatic".)

    If there is one thing I am pretty sure Charest is not doing it is positioning himself for a return to national politics. Outside of being past president of NAMBLA, I don't think there are many worse positions to launch a federal campaign from that of Premier of Québec.

  9. "Are there any other counter-cyclical politicians out there—that is, politicians for whom times are good when conventional wisdom suggests they shouldn't be and vice-versa?"

    Gerald Tremblay. His administration is mired in several scandals since what seems like forever, and yet his popularity hasn't really suffered until very recently–and probably not enough to knock him out of the job come the fall election.

  10. I believe the reasons for Charest's popularity are completely unrelated to his actions or inactions. With the plunge of the ADQ, and the dissolution of the PQ (with QS and GP), Charest will win the following election, and the next one, and so on, until he is replaced as PLQ chief.

    The PLQ being the only non-separatist party, Charest could win the next elections by merely dancing his way through. The fact is you have very limited options in Quebec politics: either you are a leftist separatist, not so leftist separatist or a federalist.

    Real actions are irrelevant unless the Constitution is at sake.

    In fact what DID Jean Charest do to be remembered??

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