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.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.