Managing Quebec when you are going through a social or political crisis? In recent history, all prime ministers have encountered serious pitfalls. A look back at the years in power of Jean Charest, marked by the student spring, the Charbonneau commission and a pandemic …
(Quebec) No disaster will have even approached, in seriousness, the pandemic that the Legault government has been facing since March 2020. But in the spring of 2012, a few months before the general elections, Jean Charest had to face a major political crisis: the student protest movement against the tuition fee hike.
PHOTO MARTIN CHAMBERLAND, PRESS ARCHIVES
Jean Charest, in 2016
Inviting voters to choose “between order or the street”, the idea is running in the liberal ranks. Hyper-connected, the late Jean Lapierre announces on the air that the elections are for the spring. Commentators multiply the interventions around the strategy of wedge, the divisive question that forces voters to choose their camp. Finally, Charest waits, he decides that the elections will be called instead in August, for a poll on September 4 – by superstition, it was the date of his first election in 1984. “The student associations then played finesse and decided to curb their action so as not to give Charest a chance during the election campaign. The message “it’s us or the street” falls flat when there are no demonstrators, ”recalls Mario Lavoie, one of the rare apparatchiks to have followed Charest throughout his time as head of government .
The context in education is highly volatile. The universities are crying famine, estimate in 2010 to 620 million the gap which separates them from the establishments of the rest of the country as for the financing. The Charest government therefore decides to increase tuition fees – an increase of 75% over five years. Two years later, the Liberal government is at the bottom in the polls, the election campaign is at its doorstep. The ingredients are gathered for an unprecedented protest movement, which will quickly catalyze general discontent.
After the first strike vote in early February, the movement snowballed in universities and CEGEPs. Two weeks later, there will be 132,000 students in the street, they will be 305,000 a month later.
The small groups of the left are multiplying, the Black Bloc infiltrates demonstrations, violence often breaks out. At the instigation of the Minister of Public Security, Robert Dutil, Quebec passes a bill providing for heavy fines, cancellation of sessions, tight obligations for holding demonstrations; Law 78 will hardly be respected.
The indolence of the Montreal police irritates the ministers of Charest. When he left, five years later, the boss of the SPVM, Marc Parent, explained that he knowingly avoided confrontation with young people. “These were not circumstances where you could just apply law and order,” he will say. In Montreal, there were about 300 arrests for violent acts in connection with 532 protests. Across Quebec, more than 1,370 demonstrations took place between February and September.
Charest launches his campaign from the tarmac at Quebec airport, anxious to avoid a muscular demonstration. There is hardly any, the movement of the pots is muted to avoid any mobilization behind the PLQ. Pauline Marois is elected at the head of a minority government. Jean Charest, him, is beaten even in his stronghold of Sherbrooke.
PHOTO ANDRÉ PICHETTE, ARCHIVES THE PRESS
Premier Jean Charest in Sherbrooke, leaving after his defeat in 2012
Like François Legault, Jean Charest had to deal with a pandemic. In November and December 2009, a general vaccination campaign aimed to slow the progression of the H1N1 flu. Long queues form at the doors of the establishments. Fifty-six percent of Quebecers get vaccinated, the government hoped for 70%. It is true that the virus is ten times less deadly than that of COVID-19.
Charest is not at his first crisis. Even his coming to power in 2003 was marked by clashes, with a series of bills passed under the gag order in the National Assembly, including a contested amendment to article 45 of the Labor Code, at the request of the bosses. . The important demonstrations followed one another in front of the Parliament building.
How were decisions made under the Liberal government? The former advisers are unanimous: Charest consulted a lot, his ministers, his deputies first.
He also had a network of acquaintances that he called upon in case of doubt. In this he resembled Robert Bourassa and his mentor, Brian Mulroney. With the difference that Charest never let his plan show. His opinion remained a mystery, and “in the end, he made his interpretation of the consensus he had observed”, summarizes Hugo D’Amours, another veteran in the Prime Minister’s office.
His relationship with the Liberal Party of Quebec has evolved into a roller coaster. The Progressive Conservative’s transplant, which arrived in the spring of 1998, took a long time to take. As soon as he arrived, he surrounded himself with good-natured liberals – Ronald Poupart, Pierre Bibeau – but after his defeat at the hands of Lucien Bouchard in the fall, discontent settled among the militants. In 2002, the Landry government was at its lowest, the Liberals should be the natural alternative, but they suddenly lost three by-elections which passed into the hands of young ADQ leader Mario Dumont.
It’s the shock – Charest spends the summer working with a committee parallel to his party’s political commission to deliver his electoral program almost a year before the elections.
The 2007 elections are a slap in the face. Charest is re-elected, but his government is in the minority. He is frustrated because he wanted the party to be ready much earlier. The campaign was improvised during the holiday season. The organization is confused. Armed with outdated scores, the Liberal volunteers invite the ADQ to vote.
With this short victory, tensions are to be expected internally. As in 1998, Charest called on veterans with long service to the PLQ. Charest recovers a liberal guarantee and announces the entry on the scene of advisers on the fringes of the government and the party, John Parisella, the former right-hand man of Robert Bourassa, and Michel Bissonnette, ex-president of the youth of the PLQ, of the founders of Zone3. A few months pass by surfing the hazy formula of “cohabitation” with the opposition. The financial crisis arrives, the time when it is appropriate to have “both hands on the wheel”.
Candidate Charest converts the millions that the Harper government has just sent him to resolve the “fiscal imbalance” into a promise of tax cuts. The Conservative will be angry with him for a long time. Charest does not care, he is reelected at the head of a majority government.
Unlike Legault, Couillard and Marois, Jean Charest has never found an alter ego among his chiefs of staff. They were rather interchangeable. The late Michel Crête, the first to occupy the post in 2003, was for him a complete stranger. Stéphane Bertrand, his successor, too, but the latter knew the PLQ well. Followed Marc Croteau, come from the municipal, Luc Bastien, liberal of long time; their relationship with Charest did not last either. Finally, Dan Gagnier, whom he had known in Ottawa as a senior official at the Privy Council. For the Caisse de dépôt, Charest also chooses Michael Sabia, from the same seraglio. The inner circle of Charest remains conservative; les Luc Ouellet, François Pilote, Me Marc Dorion, Dany Renaud will still be there at the start of 2020. Poll in hand, they advised him not to jump in the race to succeed Andrew Scheer.
It has often been said that the Irishman in him had a short fuse. His entourage remembers him rather as a placid boss who rarely raised his voice. Under attack, however, he could roar; From his seat in the Assembly, he had called the PQ Elsie Lefebvre a “little bitch”, who had expressed doubts about the integrity of his wife, Michèle Dionne. Caught off guard by Liberal Yves Séguin’s decision to chair Prime Minister Landry’s commission on fiscal imbalance, Charest dropped: “One less unemployed person”, a joke he regretted, we confess.
Séguin will become one of his ministers before slamming the door. There will also be many departures under Charest; Me Marc Bellemare, the star at Justice, leaves just before the deadline which would prohibit him from running for government office. A story of pods sends Julie Boulet to purgatory – she will come back, but as Health Delegate, a requirement of the responsible minister, Philippe Couillard. Thomas Mulcair leaves after months of friction around the Mont-Orford park privatization project. The Suroît gas-fired power plant project was put aside, and soon after, the responsible minister, Sam Hamad, retired for health reasons. Later, it was David Whissell who refused to part with a family business that had contracts from Transports Québec. Tony Tommassi is shown the door; he had in his pocket a credit card paid for by an entrepreneur who dealt with Quebec, nothing very good for a government which was struggling to make people forget the corruption of which it was accused.
> (Re) read the analysis “Charbonneau Commission: five years after the electroshock”
Strangely, despite the slew of reports on the findings of the Mâchurer investigation, throughout Philippe Couillard’s tenure, Charest remained popular with activists. In his last year in office, Philippe Couillard, challenged, ends up accepting that Jean Charest makes an appearance at a general council of the PLQ. Charest is a hit, long ovation by the enthusiastic activists. The former leader goes to meet them, crisscrossing the room at a rapid pace, while Prime Minister Philippe Couillard brings up the rear.