It is an inescapable fact that, since the 1995 referendum, Québec politics have been dominated by two of Brian Mulroney’s former cabinet ministers. The first, Lucien Bouchard, made his way to the top post of the Parti Québécois (PQ) to replace the fallen Jacques Parizeau. The second, Jean Charest, a much younger politician, was pushed to the head of the Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) by the federal Liberals in order to fill the void left by the dull and uncharismatic Daniel Johnson Jr.
Back in 1984, Bouchard assisted Mulroney in forging an alliance with the PQ just in time for the September federal election. That move, known in Québec as the “beau risque” (the “grand gamble”), eventually landed him a plum cabinet post at Mulroney’s side. In 1990, Jean Charest, a mere junior minister at the time, headed a House of Commons commitee that diluted the Meech Lake Accord, forcing Bouchard to resign his senior cabinet post and set up, together with a grab bag of malcontents from all parties, a parliamentary group called the Bloc Québécois. In 1991, this mixed bag of Liberals, Conservatives and social-democratic Péquistes transformed the Bloc into a full-fledged federal party and, in 1993, the Bloc became the Official Opposition in Ottawa.
Charest’s boyish charm worked wonders. He swiftly rose to the leadership of a demoralized PC Party after the 1993 debacle, and succeeded in garnering 20 per cent of Québec voters for the nearly moribund Tories. More importantly, in the 1995 referendum debates his performance outshone that of Daniel Johnson and Jean Chrétien, the official leaders of the federalist camp.
The defining moment for Mulroney’s squabbling heirs – and a most dramatic one at that – came when they squared off in the 1995 referendum campaign. Both performed well in this pressure-cooker, “third period” atmosphere – to quote Parizeau’s clever hockey metaphor. Even though Bouchard’s charisma was a determining factor in the near win of the Yes side, in the end it was Charest’s feisty style in promoting federalism that saved the day for the No side.
After Parizeau’s demise, Bouchard was crowned leader of the PQ and swiftly implemented drastic neoliberal remedies in a process called “concertation” (collaboration with the trade unions), thus further weakening Québec’s social-safety net.
As for Charest, many federalist supporters took note of the promising new kid on the block, and he was handpicked to head the Québec Liberals by a powerful cabal of businessmen and political rainmakers. To their sorrow, however, his first foray into provincial politics ended with bitter defeat at the hands of Bouchard in the 1998 election.
Much to their relief, the Charest gambit has now finally paid off. The Liberals are in power both in Ottawa and in Québec for the first time since the heyday of Trudeau and Bourassa. The golden boy is now poised not only to slay the “separatist dragon,” but also to promote wholesale privatization and subcontracting, while rolling back the labour movement. To realize the high hopes invested in him, Charest must pass through three tests in the very near future. The first is with the popular and labour movements: Can he bulldoze through his “reingeneering the state” policies? Charest obviously underestimates the power of these movements. Unions represent 40 per cent of Québec’s labour force, the highest density anywhere in North America. They are widely awakened by the sound and fury of the “reingeneering” discourse. There is an overwhelming awareness of the sort of gains the “Quiet Revolution” brought to Québec, and many people don’t want to go back to the old order. We will soon find out if that widely shared consensus still holds.
The second test is the national question. Charest pays lip service to recognizing Québec as a nation, yet he acts as if such an entity does not exist. The Québec Liberals see the problem through the looking glass of administrative reforms. But the national question will not go away, and globalization only exacerbates it.
The third test, closely linked to the previous one, will be the upcoming federal election. What will the PLQ do if the Bloc goes down to crushing defeat, as it is widely believed it will, and Paul Martin’s government rakes in a big majority of Québec’s federal seats? Will Charest continue to play the soft-nationalist tune or will he revert to a hard-line federalist stance?
The paramount test for his policies will without a doubt revolve around the social and labour issues. His eagerness to snatch a quick victory at the expense of the labour movement may yet be his undoing, as it was for the Bourassa regime of the 1970’s. The PLQ may unwittingly rekindle the PQ’s social-democratic base and help the party bounce back to power. The next few months will tell us if the Charest government will follow in the footsteps of Bourassa, who, after three years of fighting the unions and the social movements, had to call an ill-fated election before the end of his term.
This article appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .