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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Ibbitson: Results herald new era for federalism

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2003

It turns out he was a wolf in sacrificial lamb's clothing.

Jean Charest, the politician beloved across the nation for his unflagging ability to lose in a noble cause, is about to become premier of Quebec. And a new era of federal-provincial renewal will soon be upon us.

Mr. Charest's victory last night was nothing if not emphatic. A Liberal majority government within 39 minutes of polls closing and this despite the fact that many of the Liberals' safest ridings on the island of Montreal still hadn't finished voting yet because of irregularities. With PQ ridings and cabinet ministers falling to the left and right, the result was obvious. Not just a victory, but a landslide for Mr. Charest.

Most Charest-watchers never thought it would happen. Think of how many times this man took one for the team. He ran against Kim Campbell in 1993, simply so there would be a veneer of competition in the federal Progressive Conservative leadership race (and almost won).

After the October debacle, he dutifully gathered up the pieces of the Progressive Conservative Party, restoring some measure of parliamentary credibility in 1997. Then it was off to Quebec, where the Liberals were desperately in need of someone who could lose respectably to Lucien Bouchard's Parti Québécois.

But this time, he had nearly five years to prepare. And look what happened. It turns out that if you give Mr. Charest sound policies and enough money, and throw in a third party to bleed off PQ votes, he will actually win an election for you.

So what does it mean for Quebec? And what does it mean for the rest of the country?

For Quebec, it will mean some measure of turmoil — nothing akin to the storms that greeted Ralph Klein, Mike Harris and Gordon Campbell, but enough to make life interesting.

After all, Mr. Charest is proposing to reduce personal income taxes 27 per cent, introduce English instruction in French schools in Grade 1, reduce the size of the public service and freeze spending in all departments outside Health and Education, take a knife to the province's regulatory regime, and increase the role of private daycare.

More than enough for a few mass protests and maybe even a provincewide strike or two.

But in the longer run, these reforms could set Quebec on a path toward competitive tax rates and an entrepreneurial environment that will solidify growth and transform an economy that has underperformed for generations.

For the rest of the country, Mr. Charest's victory will make for interesting times. Although the threat of a referendum on separation any time this decade has become extremely remote, the state of the federation is once again migrating to the front burner.

Mr. Charest is a cosmopolitan Canadian: at home in Quebec, Ottawa, or any part of the country. As a Mulroney-era cabinet minister and as federal PC leader, he poked his nose into every nook and cranny of the country. He is probably the first Quebec premier-designate who knows where Humboldt, Sask., is. He might even have been there.

This will not lessen pressure from Quebec for a reordering of federal-provincial powers. Quite the opposite. Mr. Charest will work easily and comfortably with other provincial premiers, most of whom want exactly what Quebec wants: greater provincial control over tax revenues and an end to federal intrusions in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Provided Paul Martin, that other cosmopolitan Quebecker, becomes prime minister, Ottawa may well be willing to work with the provincial governments to realign powers and priorities. If things go well, Mr. Charest, in concert with the Alberta and British Columbia premiers, could work out a new deal for Confederation with Mr. Martin that brings greater clarity and responsibility to each level of government, without sacrificing national standards.

If things go awry, negotiations could degenerate into acrimony, and the sovereigntists would rightly paint Mr. Charest as neither a sheep nor a wolf, but a lap dog. And the decade could end with sovereignty once again on the rise in Quebec — but leave that for another time.

Today the sun rose on Jean Charest, premier-designate of Quebec. Finally. Good on 'im.

Party L E T
Liberal 0 76 76
PQ 0 45 45
ADQ 0 4 4
Indep. 0 0 0
Total 0 125 125
Quebec Election
Party Results ROBTv Workopolis