Jean Charest stays in power because of his political smarts, his eye for the jugular and his ability to, time and again, defy expectations. At least, this is the accepted wisdom when describing how Charest, who has never exactly warmed Quebec’s collective heart, has managed to become one of the country’s longest-serving premiers. He is a constant in a fractured political landscape: the 53-year-old has faced no less than five Parti Québécois leaders over three elections. And he has strongly hinted he’s hungry for more.
Yet if Charest has a weakness, it’s his own tendency to make and hold to highly contentious decisions, only to reverse himself once the decision has incurred the maximum political damage on his own government. Exhibit A: the premier recently said he’d be open to holding some form of public inquiry into the province’s demonstrably corrupt construction industry—something the opposition, the voting public and several municipal officials have pleaded for throughout the last two years. And as lukewarm as Charest’s endorsement may sound, it constitutes nothing short of a huge climbdown for the premier, who has spent much of this time refusing to even consider the possibility.
There are many such grand reversals throughout Charest’s eight years in office. The building of the CHUM, Montreal’s French superhospital, was delayed by Charest’s insistence that it be located in the municipality of Outremont, even though the public overwhelmingly favoured a downtown site. Only after the ensuing squabble—which delayed the project by upwards of four years, according to former Université de Montréal rector Robert Lacroix—did the premier reverse himself.
Ditto the issue of Jewish schools, which Charest fought to fund until protracted public outrage caused him to reconsider. Charest also campaigned to develop Mont-Orford, a ski hill not far from his birthplace of Sherbrooke, and to keep his $75,000 salary bonus paid to him by the Liberal Party of Quebec. In both cases, Charest’s battles were fought in the headlines, and they proved to be as fruitless as they were arduous: today, Mont-Orford is as condo-free as ever, and the Premier is $75,000 poorer since renouncing the stipend last year. This week, police laid criminal charges against former Liberal minister Tony Tomassi—a man Charest had defended for months, before relieving him of his duties last spring.
His flip-flopping has had consequences in the court of public opinion. In September 2009, when the PQ first called for a public inquiry into the province’s construction industry, Charest had a 44 per cent approval rating, according to a CROP poll at the time. In the latest CROP poll, conducted before Charest mused about holding an inquiry, he’d stumbled 11 points, to 33 per cent. Yet some question whether Charest even cares about his perennially dismal poll numbers. “He always thinks people will forget about the issue and move on to something else,” says political analyst Mario Dumont, who for five years faced Charest as leader of the rightist ADQ. “The thing is, up until now, he’s been right. Every time people forget, and he manages to come back into the public’s good graces.” And as PQ MNA Stéphane Bergeron notes, the public seemed ready to forgive Charest’s handling of the corruption file—until the untimely leak of a damning report from former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau.
Perhaps more impressive than Charest’s ability to hang on has been convincing those around him to hang on just as fiercely. Even in the darkest days of his government, there hasn’t been a single leak from some disgruntled element within, or a high-profile defection from Liberal ranks. It’s a marked departure even for the Liberal Party of Quebec, which, for all its history of message discipline, wasn’t immune from insubordination, particularly during the reigns of Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson. “The Quebec Liberal party runs more on loyalty than on ideology,” says political science professor and PQ adviser Jean-François Lisée. “But even by this standard, Charest has run a remarkably tight ship. When he came to power, he benched his Liberal political opponents. Those who didn’t like it quit, leaving him with a disciplined but weakened government.”
Charest has also frequently benefited from a distracted Parti Québécois. “We caused our own downward slide,” admits Bergeron of his party’s near-constant infighting. Yet the PQ’s attacks have nonetheless cemented the issue of a public inquiry in the minds of Quebec voters. It’s a good thing for Jean Charest that he’s so used to changing his own.