Programming Note: Quebec Scene

9 Apr

Just over a year ago, Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals limped out of a provincial election with a narrow minority government, the first in that province since the 19th century.

In the same vote, the Parti Québécois became the third party in Quebec’s National Assembly, and the ADQ party, led by Mario Dumont, won more seats than ever before – almost winning the election – to become Quebec’s Official Opposition.

And for a little while at least, it looked as if Charest’s minority government wouldn’t last too long. By September of last year, they had dropped to 24 per cent in the polls, third place behind the ADQ and the PQ.

Late last month, though, the front-page headline in Montreal’s La Presse read ‘”Charest Revit” – literally, “Charest Lives Again” – as that newspaper’s latest polling had the Quebec Liberal Party back on top of the heap at 34 per cent voting intention, as compared to the PQ’s 30 per cent and the ADQ’s 22 per cent.

Even more encouraging for the Quebec Premier, the poll showed that 61 per cent of Quebec residents were satisfied with his government, the highest level of satisfaction for any government in the province in two decades, and almost double its rating of six months ago.

Quebec has a history of producing popular, charismatic politicians – think Trudeau, Lévesque and Bouchard. But Charest has seldom been thought of in that league. His more remote personality, his previous career in federal politics (he came within 187 votes of becoming Prime Minister of Canada in the 1993 Progressive Conservative Convention, losing to Kim Campbell), and … yes… the fact that his mother was an anglophone, all contributed to the wariness with which francophone Quebec voters approached Charest since his entry into provincial politics one decade ago this month.

So what accounts for his party’s amazing political turnaround in such a short period of time? Some of it certainly stems from the failure of Mario Dumont to appear as a Premier-in-waiting over the past year. And the PQ has been going through its own leadership issues, replacing André Boisclair with Pauline Marois.

Some commentators suggest that Charest has taken some posthumous lessons from one of his predecessors – Robert Bourassa – and become “…a button-down premier who appeals to Quebec’s sense of order, if not its heartstrings…

The Premier’s recent success comes at a time when politics in Quebec seems to be changing. Most dramatically, the PQ recently abandoned its longstanding policy of promising a referendum on sovereignty as soon as possible after an election victory. And on the federal scene, the Bloc Québécois’ decline in popularity and the Conservatives’ growing credibility among Quebec voters had prominent Quebec journalist Chantal Hébert writing about a “full-fledged federalist revival” in the province.

What does that mean for the rest of Canada? Well, according to Hébert, it certainly doesn’t mean the Question of Quebec will cease to be central to politics in this country.

Here’s what she told an audience in New Brunswick last fall, in a speech that was recently broadcast on CBC Radio:

Keeping Quebec in the federation has been the dominating challenge of the second half of the 20th century in Canadian politics. But I would predict that living productively with a Quebec that’s not going anywhere may be one of the more transforming experiences of the first decades of the 21st century. And you may find it sometimes just as hard.

For more on recent developments in Quebec politics, please tune into a televised panel discussion I am producing that will air tonight and be available online later this week.

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