Beginning of the end for Jean Charest

His budget crazy-man act didn’t go over well with the Liberals

www.montrealgazette.com
samedi 2 juin 2007

"Bland works," said Bill Davis, who managed to win four elections as premier of Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s despite his utter lack of charisma.

And so does crazy, as another Tory premier of a large Canadian province has just demonstrated.

We’ll never know whether Jean Charest, a dyed-in-the-wool federal Conservative passing as a provincial Liberal, really was crazy enough to commit political suicide over a tax cut most voters don’t seem to want.

But if he wasn’t, then he should win some kind of acting award for his performance in the week between the Parti Quebecois’s decision to vote against his government’s budget and the PQ’s cave-in on Thursday.

While Finance Minister Monique Jerome-Forget played the good cop, assuring Radio-Canada’s Christiane Charette that she and Pauline Marois, already the real leader of the PQ, would find a compromise like "two little ladies," her boss played mad cop.

He had many suspecting that he had decided that an improbable victory in an early election, before his party could replace him as leader, represented his last, faint hope of saving his political career.

Even if he wasn’t really losing control of himself, he lost his grip on his caucus. Some Liberal MNAs were so alarmed that they privately sounded out the PQ about possible compromises to avoid an election.

But even if he was bluffing, the PQ was so intimidated that it didn’t even hold out until midnight on the eve of yesterday’s vote before folding its hand at the 10th hour.

Thus Quebecers were spared either the first July election in more than a half century or the possibility that Lieutenant-Governor Lise Thibault, after consulting the vice-regal ouija board, would invite Dumont to form a government with the support of the PQ.

(Strange bedfellows are one thing, but a coupling between such ideologically different species as the right-wing, "autonomist" Action democratique and the left-wing, sovereignist PQ would have been so contrary to nature as to constitute consensual bestiality.)

And Charest managed to preserve intact his $950-million income-tax cut. For while it was in Jerome-Forget’s budget, it was he who promised the cut just before the March 26 election.

But as Liberal MNAs gave their leader a ritual standing ovation after he cast his vote in the Assembly yesterday, it looked as though Charest had scored a pyrrhic victory.

His tax cut will provide substantial benefits to only a small minority of voters, and then only next year. But to pay for concessions to the PQ, his government immediately increased the corporate income tax for oil companies and financial institutions, which will be passed on to all voters equally. So now, on top of everything else, Charest will be blamed for high gas prices as well.

Poll results published this week confirm that Charest has become a pariah. That Liberal MNAs doubted even for a while that their leader knew what he was doing over the budget shows that they have lost confidence in his judgment.

Many of them were already discontented about being left out of his reduced new cabinet. Politically active sources in the Jewish community say that because of the demotion of former minister Lawrence Bergman, a successful Liberal fundraiser nicknamed Larry Bagman, the chequebooks of regular Liberal contributors will stay closed for the party’s next fundraising campaign.

And for next year’s budget, Charest won’t be able to count on another $700-million federal bailout. The word out of Ottawa is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has given up on Charest and cut him loose.

Simply put, Charest is finished as an effective political force. He could use yesterday’s "victory" for middle-class taxpayers as a pretext for a relatively graceful resignation as leader after the Assembly recesses for the summer in three weeks. If he doesn’t, then he might be forced out in time to be replaced by a leader who at least is not a political liability before the session resumes in mid-October.

Charest might have been crazy enough to risk political suicide. But the Liberal Party isn’t.

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Charest en fin de régime - L’art de ne rien faire

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