The unflappable Jean Charest

Despite scandal and horror-show headlines, Charest is confidently leading Quebec


The governing Liberal caucus likes to meet briefly in Quebec’s national assembly before a Wednesday question period. When I was there last week, Jean Charest was the last to arrive, surrounded by the standard-issue flying wedge of aides and factotums.

Charest bustled past the waiting scribes, wearing a wary smile. A few steps later, just before he vanished into the caucus room, he gave what I’m told is a habitual salute: “Tallyho!”

“And away we go,” his flying wedge chimed in, in English. The door closed behind them.

Jean Charest is 51 years old. He has been the premier of Quebec for 6½ years. He won back his party’s majority in the national assembly in elections a year ago after a brief spell leading modern Quebec’s first minority government, so now he has three years or so before the next election. In private conversations, he tells people he would like a fourth mandate.

His government is beset by scandal: corruption in the construction industry. The Parti Québécois opposition comes to question period every day armed with little more than the morning headlines. The headlines are all the opposition needs. They are a horror show for this government.

The PQ, along with the tragicomic remains of the Mario Dumont-less Action démocratique du Québec, want a public inquiry into the mess in construction. Every editorialist in Quebec seems to agree. Charest won’t call an inquiry. Let the police and prosecutors do their job, he said. Problem: the police union wants a public inquiry, too. So does the association of Crown prosecutors. Who doesn’t? The construction union. And Jean Charest.

It is perhaps not the strongest hand any politician has ever been dealt. Yet Charest seems unflappable. I’ve been covering him for 15 years. In Ottawa, already a political veteran, he would try to impress people with his vim, bellowing, arms waving, transforming himself, in Andrew Coyne’s classic phrase, “from moon-faced boy to enraged moon-faced boy.” Now butter wouldn’t melt on his tongue. I’m trying to figure out when Jean Charest turned into Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix.

He smiles frostily while Pauline Marois, the third leader the PQ has sent against him since 2003, bellows at him. He rises slowly, one hand in a pocket, pauses forever before answering. Police and courts can work at cleaning the system up right away, he said. His government has bills ready to pass, reforming election financing, restricting municipal authority to make contracts. Won’t the opposition help pass them faster?

A public inquiry will only waste time, he says wearily. What he means is that public inquiries grind up governments naive enough to call them. Paul Martin and the Gomery circus are one example. Another is closer to home. Robert Bourassa called a commission into construction corruption 35 years ago. Another circus. It created a generation of new political stars: Guy Chevrette, Brian Mulroney, Lucien Bouchard. Bourassa lost the next election. Charest has no interest in creating new political stars.

Soon he’ll be away, travelling for much of the Christmas legislative break. France, Russia, India. Copenhagen, Davos. “He’s living days of glory like he’d never known them before,” one of Charest’s MNAs tells me later. “He must know the names of two-thirds of the mayors of Quebec, and many school board chairmen, too. He’s much more at ease today than even four or five years ago.”

People used to grumble that he’s not really a Quebecer, that his real first name is “John,” that he was sent here by the Desmarais family to put Quebec in its place. You don’t hear so much of that anymore. True, he does seem more poised in English than French. But now he’s relaxed enough to joke about that, and to give a plausible answer: the rigid rule of Quebec City news conferences is that all the French questions come first, and then English questions. He improvises in French, then repeats himself, with the benefit of rehearsal, in English.

People also used to say he wanted to go back to federal politics. You do still hear that. The MNA who told me Charest is the most confident politician in Quebec shrugged when I asked whether Charest would stay. “I’m sure he hasn’t closed every door.”
He once had something close to a friendship with Stephen Harper. It left him with nobody to fight, and he lost his majority in the 2007 election. Then Harper went off to flirt with Dumont’s ADQ. “The Irishman in Charest didn’t take that well,” the Liberal MNA said. Now provincial and federal governments have a tense relationship, and Jean-Marc Fournier, who rode in Charest’s campaign bus a year ago as a friend and counsellor, works for Michael Ignatieff.

People don’t usually tell themselves it is unwise to cross Charest, and yet he leaves in his wake a surprising number of former allies who might have aspired to replace him. Pierre Paradis, Yves Séguin, Tom Mulcair, Philippe Couillard, Benoît Pelletier. Nothing happened to them, you understand. They just . . . fell. His remaining ministers are perfect non-entities.

The recession didn’t hit as hard in Quebec as elsewhere. Hydro-Québec is quietly empire-building in Atlantic Canada. Charest pursues an activist environmental policy so different from Harper’s as to be unrecognizable. In his new book, Jacques Parizeau sings the blues about how demoralized the separatist movement’s leaders are. In 1998, Dave Rutherford, a Calgary radio host, draped a flag around Charest’s shoulders and pleaded with him to save Canada. Maybe this is what saving Canada looks like.

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The unflappable Jean Charest

  1. "Maybe this is what saving Canada looks like."

    You mean, let Québec rot and fester in corruption and cronyism while the premier zips around the globe?

    I guess that'll suit some people…

  2. It would be interesting to see which party he would go with in federal politics.

    • He would go back to the Conservative Party from whence he came.

    • I'd be very surprised if he went to the Conservatives, mainly because he seemed so uncomfortable with Harrisites who surrounded him during the 97 election.

      At least not without reinstating the Progressive.

  3. It should be noted that Charest hasn't done well in a recent poll. This is surprising, considering the robust nature of Quebec's economy during the downturn. Of course, he has 3+ years to turn things around, so I imagine he's not worried…

  4. I still think of him as Mulroney's young Minister of Sport, yet he's literally turning into one of those epochal Quebec premiers like Bourassa, Duplessis, or Taschereau. Who'd ha' thunk it.

    • I thought you used the mots justes in your LRC piece: "prince of the weather vanes".

      I'm actually quite fond of Charest. The first ballot I ever cast was for the party that he led.

      • I am too, I think he is brilliant ! I thought he should of won the leadership against Campbell, now I am not so sure, I think this worked for the better!

      • Clearly he would go back to the Conservatives. They are the continuation of his old party, and he would have greater leverage over them anyways. He could campaign for the leadership promising to deliver seats in Quebec, whereas he would not have a similar edge in a Liberal race.

  5. "Maybe this is what saving Canada looks like."

    I think you are saying that Charest, by exercising some modicum of political competence and by carefully ignoring all provocations from the PQ, has somehow kept the lid on Quebec separatism and thus saved Canada.

    So not much of a compliment, but then who cares if the result is good for Canada. A pretty dispiriting conclusion!

  6. Perhaps the federal scene in 2016 might be a showdown between Jean Charest for the Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty for the Liberals?

    Charest and McGuinty are probably the most underrated premiers and yet quite similar. They both broke big campaign promises. Their obituaries have been written time and time again. They've both lost ministers that were supposedly "indespensable" including their finance ministers. And, in the face of scandal they just smile and say everything is fine.

    Back to my first point, I don't think McGuinty has any desire and I don't think Charest will attempt the federal leadership unless he's gauranteed to win.

  7. Faux scandal? That the Prime Minister of this country knew that members of his party were offering some sort of bribe to a sitting MP and didn't do anything about it? And that he's subsequently sued the opposition for talking about just to keep them from talking? That faux scandal?

  8. It does seem a sad fact of Canadian politics that we will basically bend over and take anything our government cares to insert.. so long as they don't tell us what's going on.

    Martin made that key mistake of doing the right thing and investigating what was going on. He got soundly punished for it by Canadian citizens.

    Chretien before him, blithely ignored scandal and was repeatedly rewarded for it. Stephen Harper does likewise and is not only rewarded for it by slowly increasing his MPs seat count, is actually lionized in many Canadians minds as only suffering so because the press won't give him a break.

    Think about what that really means.. it means the crap he does is expected, we're just upset that we're hearing about it.

    This Pollyanism is useful, I suppose, and has moved us forward quite a bit as a country, but sooner or later we're going to get hit by the metaphorical motor-car if we don't wake up and stop thinking that all would be right with Canada if people would just stop talking about what's wrong.

    • Was Martin really punished for calling the Gomery commission? Or was he simply not ready to deal with the consequences of said commission? It was (and I may be wrong) my understanding that Martin saw in Gomery an opportunity to clean the Liberals of his opponents and failed miserably.

      The situation is different for Charest; not only he isn't dealing with an internecine war, he actually has 3-4 more years before next election, more than enough time to follow-up on an eventual commission.

      • To be fair, Martin's demise had a number of factors, from Chretien's last act to restrict political party contributions that basically hamstrung the Liberal party (which I believe was done specifically to box in Martin, even though it was the right thing to do), to Martin's own completely inept campaign in the face of Harper who'd had a generation to prepare.

        That said, you can spin the commission results either way, but from what I've seen from looking at other PM's who don't investigate the problems (Shawinigate, pepper on my plate, in-and-out, Cadman doubt), it really seems to be that the existance of scandal isn't nearly as damaging to a politician in Canada as the acknowlegement and investigation of said scandal.

        • There is a difference between a real scandal (Adscam) and a faux scandal (Cadman). A real scandal hurts, a faux scandal can be safely ignored.

    • Martin made that key mistake of doing the right thing and investigating what was going on.

      It's hard to disagree with Olivier's response to your comment. Martin used Gomery to air the Liberals' dirty laundry in public, and hopefully purge the Liberals of his opponents.

      If that sounds like a stretch, one telling clue is from Gomery's mandate, the infamous "Paragraph K":

      "The Commissioner be directed to perform his duties without expressing any conclusion or recommendation regarding the civil or criminal liability of any person or organization"

      • I agree. Martin called in Gomery so that he could look good while he purged the party of all the Chretien infrastructure, having already removed all of the best Chretien MPs (Manley, Cauchon, etc.) There was nothing noble about creating such a spectacle to give oneself the opportunity to act faux-righteously indignant.

  9. Pauline Marois, the third leader the PQ has sent against him since 2003…

    … the tragicomic remains of the Mario Dumont-less Action démocratique du Québec…

    J'ai l'impression que these two nuggets explain far more of "John" Charest's success that anything about monsieur Charest…

  10. "Jean Charest was the last to arrive, surrounded by the standard-issue flying wedge of aides and factotums.
    "Charest bustled past the waiting scribes, wearing a wary smile. A few steps later, just before he vanished into the caucus room, he gave what I'm told is a habitual salute: 'Tallyho!'
    "'And away we go,' his flying wedge chimed in, in English. The door closed behind them."

    FUNNIEST political anecdote EVER!

  11. Excellent article, Mr. Wells. Charest is indicative of the kinds of decent conservatives who used to inhabit the Conservative Party. He stands as a reminder of how far to the nasty end of the right-wing spectrum the Harper Conservatives have moved. An alarming comparison. I would be happy if he returned to federal politics.

  12. The debate here are so intense. Very wonderful article. It sparked intelligent debate.

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