Analysis

Jean Charest returns to haunt the Quebec Liberals

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest will address this weekend's Quebec Liberal Party convention. After all the trouble Philippe Couillard has gone to to distance himself from his old boss, is that a good idea?

Former leader to address this weekend's provincial Liberal convention — but is it a good idea?

Several times during his tenure as Liberal leader, Philippe Couillard, right, has had to distance himself from his predecessor, Jean Charest, left. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Premier Philippe Couillard owes some measure of his political success to the distance he's placed between himself and his predecessor as leader of the Quebec Liberals, Jean Charest. 

Health minister in the Charest administration starting in 2003, Couillard made an early exit from the provincial political scene in 2008, which allowed him to present himself as the candidate of change when he ran for the party's leadership five years later.

As premier, Couillard has been forced, on several occasions, to pull further away from Charest, as the aftermath of past Liberal governments' ethical imbroglios seems to continually haunt him.

In 2016, on the day police ruined his government's good-news budget by arresting Charest's deputy premier, Nathalie Normandeau, on a series of corruption-related charges, Couillard was quick to stress how much the party had changed under his leadership.

"Fortunately, we are living in a completely different context," Couillard said at the time.

​Earlier this year, it was revealed that Charest himself was under investigation by the province's anti-corruption unit, along with Marc Bibeau, one of the party's most prominent fundraisers in the early 2000s.

Premier Philippe Couillard reportedly insisted that Jean Charest be invited to this weekend's convention in Quebec City. (Steve Rukavina/CBC)

Once again, Couillard took out his measuring stick to illustrate the size of the gap between himself and Charest. 

"Since my ascension to the party leadership, since I've become premier, you wouldn't be able to show one case, not one case of anything other than irreproachable practices of public administration," Couillard thundered against the opposition in the National Assembly. 

The dagger, of course, is in what Couillard leaves unsaid when he defends the party's ethical integrity. By stressing the probity of his tenure, he is ever so delicately highlighting that the party's alleged transgressions date from the Charest years.

Is leftover cachet enough?

Against this backdrop, it's curious to see Charest invited to this weekend's Liberal convention in Quebec City. The party will be celebrating its 150th anniversary, and Couillard reportedly insisted that Charest be allowed to address the party faithful.

If there is a tactical consideration at play, it may be that Charest retains enough cachet among Liberal members that a good ole barn-burner from the curly-haired Townshipper can energize the troops in an election year.

Elections are won in the trenches, by a spirited base willing to volunteer time and money to get out the vote. But indicators abound to suggest party morale may be low.

Polls in recent months have consistently placed the Liberals beneath the majority threshold, at best, and coming in second at worst. In October, the party lost a byelection in a riding that should have been a stronghold. 

Nathalie Normandeau, Charest's deputy premier, was arrested last year on a series of corruption-related charges. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Its religious neutrality law, also passed last month, placed many longtime Liberals in Montreal in a difficult position. Even the party's vice-president, Casper Bloom, was forced to acknowledge the law was "not overly popular" on the island.

Vultures circling

But smart tactics don't always translate into good strategy. Charest's rehabilitation exposes the party to continued attacks on its integrity.

When his invitation to this weekend's convention was made public this week, the opposition parties circled like vultures. Couillard was forced to stand in the National Assembly and, this time, defend his predecessor's record. 

Charest had been "remarkable" in steering the province through the 2008 financial crisis and launching the Plan Nord economic development project, Couillard said.   

The Liberals are mired in mediocre poll ratings despite a healthy economy, tax cuts and budget surpluses. They can't seem to gain traction on whatever good news they do generate, and with the election scheduled for October, time is fast running out. 

In these circumstances, staving off defeat would seem to call for reducing the party's vulnerabilities, not multiplying them. 

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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