Tobin: He's ready. Is Canada?
By BRIAN TOBIN
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2003
Jean Charest is surely the most "Canadian" premier ever to take office in the history of Quebec. His political roots were forged in the Conservative Party under Brian Mulroney and in the House of Commons, which is why Quebec Premier Bernard Landry spent the last days of the province's election campaign attacking Mr. Charest for being too close to Ottawa. To this, Mr. Charest has simply replied, "There will always be a sovereignty movement in Quebec and you have to accept that they defend that idea like I defend mine."
Jean Charest's election victory comes with the support of many francophones who, after years of reluctance, are embracing the brand of leadership he is offering them. In saying yes to Mr. Charest, Quebeckers have said yes to someone who, after spending years in the political wilderness, emerged to dominate the provincial leaders' TV debate of March 31. Despite his opponents' appeal the fresh-faced Mario Dumont, who promised to reduce government's role in Quebeckers' lives, and the known quantity of the nationalist incumbent, Bernard Landry, they saw in Mr. Charest someone in touch with the issues most important to Quebeckers.
Mr. Charest scored big on health care, education and the economy. He refused to allow Mr. Landry to get away with being fuzzy on sovereignty. He was revealed in the debate to be experienced and tough, and at the same time, passionate and committed to his vision of a more outward and confident Quebec within Canada.
Jean Charest has suffered for many years from the label of "golden boy," someone to whom success came too easily and quickly. That's simply wrong. In fact, he has more than paid his dues.
I remember when he came into the House of Commons in 1984. Young, articulate and perfectly bilingual, he was clearly a Mulroney favourite and was quickly made assistant deputy speaker. He was very good in the role, and the House respected his authority. In June, 1986, when he was 28, he was invited into the cabinet (as the minister of state for youth) the youngest MP ever to be sworn in. From there, he moved to increasingly important portfolios, culminating in minister of the environment.
Along the way, he paid his dues for his vision of federalism, breaking with his old friend Lucien Bouchard over the Charlottetown Accord. In 1993, battling Kim Campbell for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives, he came close to upsetting what was supposed to have been an easy win for her. Later that year, after Ms. Campbell's blistering defeat before a resurgent Liberal Party, it was Mr. Charest who picked up the pieces and began rebuilding the party.
Within two years, he was fighting for Canada itself. His voice was among the most powerful and persuasive in urging Quebeckers to say no to Mr. Bouchard's phenomenal campaign in the 1995 referendum. Contesting the federal election of June, 1997, as PC leader, Mr. Charest increased the Tories' desperately thin ranks, winning more seats in Atlantic Canada, and earning the grudging respect of his political foes.
That is why, less than a year later, voices from every quarter urged Jean Charest to take up the leadership of the Liberal Party of Quebec. In April of 1998, he did so.
Now, I know from experience that moving between provincial and federal politics is a tricky switch not least because the folk with whom you have made common cause for many years tend to see the large national questions from only one side of the jurisdictional equation. Like me, Jean Charest has seen both sides now. His job will be that of bridge-builder, explaining each side to the other. An example: The federal government sees itself as the guarantor of public health care across Canada. Provincial governments see Ottawa merely as the funding agent, the source of grief.
But if anyone expects that Mr. Charest's rise in Quebec will spell peace on the health-care front, think again. It's far more likely that Ralph Klein will have a new ally, someone who will join him in demanding that Ottawa pay its share. The difference is, with Mr. Charest, Ottawa won't be able to dismiss his demands as the clamour from another Quebec sovereigntist.
We can also expect him to understand the vital importance of the Canada-U.S. relationship; after all, he's a veteran of the federal government that brought us the free-trade deal. At the same time, we can expect that he will be a voice of reason around his own cabinet table, convincing his people in Quebec City that contrary to popular belief, there is nothing in Ottawa called "the Department of Shafting the Provinces."
In changing from federal to provincial politics, Mr. Charest also changed parties. If this has created suspicion, it was a red herring: In changing from the federal to the provincial scene, he went to the only federalist party he could go to. Quebec has no real "provincial" Progressive Conservative presence. In making the switch, Mr. Charest has been consistent and no opportunist. Under him, the Liberals won more voters than Mr. Bouchard's PQ in the 1998 election. But that didn't translate into enough seats to form a government. And still Mr. Charest stayed on, travelling to every corner of Quebec to build support.
He has accepted as his mandate the advancement of Quebec's best interests. He knows that sometimes those interests will conflict with those of Ottawa or other provinces. Ottawa has on occasion dismissed the PQ government's demands as the demands of those who would destroy a beautiful country. This cannot be said of Mr. Charest. He has earned the right to be heard and to be respected when he speaks for Quebeckers.
I expect we will hear the nationalist fire in his words when he deems it appropriate. But we will never feel the sovereigntist knife at our throats.
Jean Charest has just been politically reborn. No longer a golden boy, scarred and seasoned by defeat, he's still very much a man to watch. Many will wonder when he will next hear the call to return to the nation's capital.
Brian Tobin is a former federal minister of industry and former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.