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Former Quebec premier Jean Charest is keeping his powder dry but those who have spoken to him are under no illusions – he is in as a contender for the federal Conservative leadership, with his official announcement expected later this month.
His wife of 40 years, Michèle Dionne, and his three grown children are onside and he is gathering a team of experienced campaigners around him, including Nick Kouvalis, who was successful in helping elect Rob Ford and John Tory as Toronto’s mayor and less successful in raising Kellie Leitch to the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017.
Former political adversaries are already using their bully pulpits to take a pop at him. Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Joseph Facal wrote a barbed attack Tuesday in Le Journal de Montréal that suggested Charest is addicted to the political jousting, the exercise of power, the limelight and the adrenaline but has little to offer beyond personal ambition.
Yet even Facal conceded Charest is a redoubtable campaigner who would prove popular among Quebec Conservatives.
There may be some truth in Facal’s contention about Charest’s addiction to the cut and thrust of politics but it would be unfair to say he has no guiding principles beyond personal ambition.
This, after all, is the man who was persuaded to leave federal politics to become the standard-bearer for Canada in Quebec. In the 1998 provincial election, Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois won re-election but Charest’s Quebec Liberal Party won the popular vote, doing enough to persuade Bouchard that a third referendum on sovereignty was doomed.
My problem with Charest is that he’s not that Conservative
The common theme of Charest’s political life has been national unity and it is the prospect of further political balkanization, both in a Quebec where the Bloc is resurgent, and in the West, that has prompted his renewed interest in electoral politics. He has noted in the past that Quebec and Alberta have a similar view of the federation and when they work together, much can be achieved.
His critics point out that he was a Liberal in Quebec. “My problem with Charest is that he’s not that Conservative,” said one senior Tory party figure.
To be fair though, there was no provincial Conservative party in Quebec, and Charest’s record in office as a Liberal was of a respectable fiscal conservative — running consecutive surpluses before the great recession.
Facal raised the prospect of a pending police investigation into the Quebec Liberal Party under Charest’s leadership but those close to him say that he would not try running had he any concerns and that he will deal with the issue head-on when his campaign launches.
For a man who spent 28 of the last 35 years in politics, it is inevitable that he brings baggage.
That may work against him as he attempts to lead a party that recent research by Abacus Data suggests is associated with the words “old”, “out of date” and “traditional”.
But he is a proven winner whose views on sexual orientation and abortion are more in line with the majority of people in Canada’s two largest provinces. He knows how the country works and will immediately become a top-line candidate when he declares. His pitch will be that leader of the Opposition is not an entry level position.
Yet, this will be no coronation.
Peter MacKay is said to be serious about entering the race and he retains the affection of many party members for his years of front-line service.
Rona Ambrose’s interest is thought to be cooling and Charest’s toughest challenge is likely to come from Pierre Poilievre, who has built a team that includes former Conservative minister John Baird and campaign director Jenni Byrne.
The Ontario MP is popular in the party and has evolved as a politician beyond the caricature of an uber-partisan attack dog that he played in previous parliaments.
His French is better than any of the other rumoured serious candidates, Charest excepted. If he can make the case that he can renovate the Conservative brand, presenting the party as more open-minded and compassionate, it may be the unlikely figure of Poilievre who is trending come late June.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020