The 200 well-dressed Quebec Liberal supporters were packed tight inside a community centre in the heart of Montreal's Gay Village. The dapper crowd had come to kick off a campaign for a local kid taking a shot at a seat in the National Assembly in the coming by-election.
The rookie, thirty-three year-old Nathalie Malépart, isn't being given much in the way of favourable odds-the riding is considered a Parti Québécois stronghold and even a star Liberal candidate would be a long-shot. But that doesn't stop the party faithful from cheering loudly. They go through the motions. Bass-heavy dance music to introduce the speakers is followed by controlled delirium; Armani-clad men with gel-forged haircuts whoop and whistle at every well-designed pause.
This is only a dress-rehearsal. The by-election, everyone knows, is meaningless. What is the value of one seat in a legislature that will likely be dissolved sometime next year to make way for a general election? With their majority in the National Assembly unthreatened, the Liberals have nothing to lose and little to gain. Still, everyone is on their best behavior; with eyes on the clock, they are eager to prove the Liberal electoral machine is ready for action. But if Liberal calendars are filled with circles, they are sporting some question marks as well.
April marks the beginning of the fourth year in the Liberal mandate. Stephen Harper's Conservative party, meanwhile, has been in power for close to two months-still with no federal budget. Charest's government is starting to wonder what goodies the federal government might hold for the provinces, or if they'll have to wait for next year's budget for more hand-me-downs from Ottawa.
Premier Jean Charest takes the stage after Malépart. His speech, too, is a warm-up of sorts; an experiment. It is a campaign speech that is not really about the campaign at hand-rather, it is a precarious toe in cold waters. Charest talks about health care and education, and then about health care some more. He finishes by hammering the PQ for their "obsession" with holding another referendum.
Charest seems to be feeling his way around a place he doesn't want to be, but the premier needs to hear what a campaign speech sounds like without being able to brag about correcting the fiscal imbalance, securing a seat for the province at UNESCO or delivering the tax cuts he promised four years ago. With the countdown to the next provincial election already underway, the premier is facing something of a lacuna between what he wants to campaign for and what he'll be able to campaign for without leaving voters incredulous.
Giving shorter campaign speeches is, decidedly, not Charest's best option. But without Harper coming through on some of his own campaign promises, Charest may find that he has little to show for his time in office. His government often appears stagnant-stuck in the polls at ten points behind the PQ, depending on whose stats you're reading-and it has been that way since he took office in 2003, due to a series of well-publicized missteps and widely unpopular policy decisions.
Fortunately for Charest, Harper has been busy laying the groundwork for a symbiotic relationship with the Quebec government since taking power. The desired end result is clear, mutual back-scratching leading to Charest's re-election and a Harper majority, thanks to further inroads in Quebec. The two leaders have already met three times since the January 23 election. Harper's visit to the National Assembly in early March had the added significance of being the first time a prime minister visited the Quebec legislature since Brian Mulroney dropped by to see René Lévesque in 1984.
During his visit, Harper pledged to give Quebec a role within the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Charest has long-advocated giving Quebec a prominent status on the international scene and often butted with Paul Martin's government over the issue. For Charest, it would be a symbolic victory which would appeal to nationalists and maybe even the odd "soft" sovereigntist. This is precisely the kind of victory Charest needs in the home stretch of his mandate. Never mind the saying about a week in politics being a lifetime-the reality is that one year is not long enough for grandiose projects or policies to supplant the public perception of a government stuck in a rut. No, Charest's fate lies in metaphoric accomplishments.
In that sense, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could very well be the best thing that ever happened to Premier Jean Charest. The problem, according to veteran journalist Graham Fraser, is that Charest "hasn't been able to build on that good news."
Fraser is the author of Sorry, I Don't Speak French, a nuanced yet light-hearted examination of federal language policy and linguistic etiquette. A Toronto Star columnist who was a weekly writer for Le Devoir in the late 1990s, Fraser also covered the National Assembly for the Montreal Gazette before joining the Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau in 1986. From his point of view, the Charest government is one mired in an inability to create momentum for itself.
Fraser points to Charest's recent botched cabinet shuffle. The shake-up was designed to be a good news event, with former sovereigntist-turned-star and Liberal candidate Raymond Bachand joining the government following his December by-election win. Instead it ended with questions about the level of support for Charest's leadership within the Liberal caucus when Environment Minister Thomas Mulcair quit, rather than accept a demotion.
Alone, the event isn't tremendously unique; cabinet shuffles are part of the life cycle of most governments. But placed in the context of Charest's three years in office, a pattern does emerge-that of a chronic inability to execute. Charest aimed to cut $103 million from a loans and bursary program for university and CEGEP students, but he backtracked after student strikes threatened to cripple the education system. Charest aimed to reform the province's day-care network, but was forced to revise his plans after facing stiff opposition from day-care workers. His government's plans to build a French language super-hospital seem to anger a new group every time they're tabled, forcing yet another round of consultations.
Added together, these anti-accomplishments mean Charest has precious little to show the public for his time in power. He can't claim to have cut education spending, opposition parties will claim credit for the positive elements of day-care reform, and he is vulnerable to accusations of dithering in the super-hospital file.
"Charest has dug himself into a hole," says Peter Blaikie, a prominent Montreal lawyer and former president of the Progressive Conservative Party. Blaikie, himself a former columnist for the Montreal Gazette, doesn't believe Charest's term has been any more disastrous than any other premier in history, but he is quick to point out that it has been a long, hard fall from grace for the curly haired kid from Sherbrooke since he entered provincial politics in 1998.
"The Ottawa media created an image of Charest walking on the water" when he stepped down as head of the Progressive Conservatives to take over the Quebec Liberals, Blaikie says. "Charest's most serious problem is the level of expectations he's had to face." Harper's campaign promises will help Charest's fallen image, he adds, but they alone won't save him.
Still, Charest can now count on a federal government more ideologically inclined to the Quebec Liberals. Harper's call for a stricter reading of the constitution is expected to give the provinces more room to maneuver, and could foster the image that Charest's presence encourages a more productive relationship with Ottawa.
To be sure, Charest's fortunes in the next election won't be entirely predicated on the fruits that his budding friendship with Harper bears. There are two extra-Harper factors that augur well for the Liberals: The first of these is a two-edged sword that has so far proved dull and harmless-André Boisclair. The Boy Wonder has failed to live up to the hype surrounding his glamorous but turbulent run for the PQ leadership. Boisclair's penchant for vacuous speeches and ambiguous policy positions have quickly overshadowed his camera-friendly smile. But as his leadership campaign showed, Boisclair's popularity can be resilient, even infectious.
The other factor working in the Liberals' favor is the emergence of a new left-wing sovereigntist party. Quebec Solidaire came to life in February, following the merger of Option citoyenne and the Union des forces progressistes. The unspoken fear among PQ supporters is that the new party will siphon enough votes away from its traditional support base to allow the Liberals to take advantage from the left.
Meanwhile, Charest will continue to try and use the spectre of another referendum as a wedge issue. "The choice we'll have is a very clear one. We can continue on health care, or put all that aside and hold a referendum. We can continue in education, or put all that aside and hold a referendum. We can continue rebuilding our economy, or put all that aside and hold another referendum," Charest told a crowd in another campaign-style speech in March.
However, Quebecers have shown on two previous occasions that they're not scared of electing a government promising to hold a referendum. "Quebecers won't be blackmailed into re-electing a party they don't like," says Fraser, who also penned an acclaimed book on the Parti Québécois under René Lévesque.
Enter Harper, the so-called "fiscal imbalance" and the seat at UNESCO. They are the metaphorical victories Charest needs to reverse the image of a Liberal party out of touch with the electorate. Resolving the two issues within the span of a year could even lend the party an appearance of momentum. Of course the problem is that Charest ultimately has to share control over the decisions concerning if, how and when these issues will be settled.
For now, we can expect more speeches like Charest gave to launch Malépart's by-election campaign-shallow indictments of the threat of separatism, desperate championing of heath-care reform, and the conspicuous absence of anything really worth bragging about.