Jean Charest waves his passport at 1995 "no" rally. Photo:

Over the weekend the Quebec Liberal Party, or at least 3,000 of their supporters, met at the Verdun Auditorium in South-Western Montreal, ostensibly to elect a new leader.

In a coronation almost, but not quite, as lacking in suspense as Trudeau the younger’s will be next month, Philippe Couillard, former Health Minister come lobbyist for private health care, was swept to the helm of this badly listing Liberal ship with a shade under sixty percent of the vote.

His ascension surprised no one, and both CAQ and PQ war rooms could be heard chuckling maniacally at the thought of all the different attack ads they can run against a man so closely linked to the Liberal record of corruption and sleaze. His relationship with Arthur Porter, the disgraced former head of the McGill University Health Centre and a man whose toxicity is rapidly reaching heights heretofore reserved for the likes of Tony Accurso, is a godsend for opponents. So too is his dubious teaching record at McGill, and his ownership stake and work as a lobbyist for a private health care company while away from politics, where he lobbied to privatize Quebec’s public health care system.

But this isn’t an article about Couillard, a man so similar in outlook, track record and appearance to his predecessor that he might as well be a clone with a beard.

This is an article about that predecessor, Jean Charest, and what the future may hold for him. To date Charest has been clear and resolute in asserting that he is done with politics. After nine years as premier, as the talking point goes, and with his first grandchild set to enter the world, he wants nothing more than to spend time with his loving family.

Allow me to call bullshit on that preposterous fairy tale.

I think Jean Charest is as capable of walking away from politics at this point in his life as a fish is of walking away from water. And when it comes to new challenges, there aren’t many left for a man who served as premier for nearly a decade. But there is one, and it’s one which Charest has always coveted. I think he wants to run for leadership of the Conservative Party post-Harper. And what’s more, I think he’ll win.

For Charest, an adrenaline junkie who seems to revel in the cut and thrust of bare knuckle politics, can there be any greater challenge, or more invigorating second act, than to become only the second provincial premier in Canadian history to ascend to the office of Prime Minister?

Indeed, if Couillard was this weekend’s winner, then Charest was clearly its star. Emerging from the political hinterlands he has been confined to since his crushing defeat last September, Charest looked nothing like a man prepared to walk away from politics. He delivered a rousing farewell speech which the Montreal Gazette‘s Philip Authier described as “vintage Charest” and “a campaign style pitch revealing the passion for politics still burns strong.”

As the party faithful roared, Charest launched a withering assault on Premier Marois for her limited English and attempts to crack down on use of the language.

“We need a premier for all Quebeckers, a premier for whom the English language is not a foreign language spoken by foreigners,” Charest said, before shifting gears to his great love of Canada.

“Canada is our home, and all those who live outside of Quebec should know that Quebec is also part of their home and their heritage. Quebeckers want Canada to succeed, Quebeckers want to be part of Canada and Quebeckers want this country to be as great … for their children as it is for them today.”

As my colleague at CJAD radio Tommy Schnurmacher mentioned to me earlier today, these references to Canada are oddly incongruous with the normal state of Quebec politics. No provincial politician waxes eloquent about his love for Canada, for the simple reason that there are no votes to be had, and certainly some to be lost, in doing so.

In 1995, as a referendum loomed, Charest wrapped himself in the flag and forged a reputation as “Captain Canada”, the man who saved a country. For the past fourteen years he has downplayed that reputation in order to woo soft nationalists, but any return to the federal scene would require him to reprise that role.

In case the allusion to this celebrated period of his personal history was too subtle, he sent former party president Marc-Andrée Blanchard to the lectern to hammer the point home. Blanchard recounted the famous incident where Charest waved his passport in front of the cameras and delivered the speech which would make his career to hundreds of thousands at a rally for the “No” side in the 1995 referendum.

Blanchard added that on a recent cross-country business trip with Charest, the former premier was frequently approached by Canadians eager for a photo or a handshake. “They say: ‘Mr. Charest, I want to thank you. You saved my country.'”

Blanchard went on to pay his own tribute to the departing leader. “There is no more precious legacy to leave to the next generation – [than] this dual allegiance to Quebec and Canada.”

But before we get carried away with this flight of fancy, let’s review the facts. Charest is fifty-four years old, far too young to be put out to pasture, and young enough to bide his time even if Harper chooses to contest the 2015 election, and wins, pushing his date of departure into the 2018-2019 range.

He was first elected as an MP in 1984, becoming the youngest federal cabinet minister in history in 1986 at the tender age of 28. One of only two Progressive Conservatives to hold their seats in the disastrous 1993 election, Charest reluctantly left federal politics in 1998 to take over the flailing Quebec Liberals and “save the country.” He was clear at the time that this was a sacrifice for a man who had long dreamed of becoming Prime Minister, and refused to shut the door on an eventual return to the federal scene.

Now, that dream may finally come true, and his myriad connections in both Conservative and Liberal circles will serve him well. Indeed, none other than Alberta Premier Alison Redford appeared via video to hail his visionary leadership at Saturday’s event.

Furthermore, the three names most often bandied about in conversations about who will replace Harper (cabinet ministers Jason Kenney, John Baird and Tony Clement) are all political lightweights whom Charest would mop the floor with in a leadership race.

Perhaps most importantly, Charest is a politically pitch perfect choice to replace Harper. He would be seen as a move to the left from the current regime, a necessary calibration after a decade or more of Conservative rule. He would hold out the tantalizing prospect of solving the Conservatives’ “Quebec problem” and allowing them to finally break through in this province. He is a gifted communicator and orator in both official languages, with a track record of standing up to Quebec’s social movements.

In particular his record of standing up to Quebec students, in a dispute whose representation in English Canadian media was cartoonishly one-sided, can be played as a demonstration of his courage and willingness to stand on principle.

This was a point he made in his speech Saturday, defending his choice to pass Law 12, which was widely decried as unconstitutional. “There are things that are worth fighting for, ladies and gentlemen, and it was well worth fighting for every student to have access to their schools.”

In the drawbacks column is the whole corruption thing, and it’s a biggie. It remains to be seen whether his Irish charm will be enough to allow Charest to skate away from a mess that largely occurred under his watch. As an observer, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Charest either knew what was going on, and is corrupt, or should have known, and is incompetent. But not everyone pays attention, and in the rest of Canada I feel like the details of our corruption scandal have sailed over most people’s heads.

There’s also the fourteen years during which “Captain Canada” dressed up like Clark Kent and said reassuringly nationalist things to woo Quebec voters. Opposition parties will enjoy digging up his remarks on subjects such as the fiscal imbalance and using them to annoy Albertans, and westerners generally.

The most significant drawback may be his tattered reputation in this province, where he was driven from office under a cloud of opprobrium for his handling of both the student strike and the corruption scandals. But as they say, time heals all wounds, and he’ll have time to lick his before asking voters here to trust him again.

There are other drawbacks to his candidacy, but none significant enough to block it. For my money our man Jean tipped his hand this weekend. I believe he will be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and maybe even the next Prime Minister. It might not shake out that way, but if it doesn’t I don’t believe it’ll be for lack of trying. To my mind the campaign to replace Stephen Harper kicked off this weekend, and Charest is already ahead by a mile.


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