Reporter's Notebook: Tim Duboyce

CBC Online News | Updated March 20, 2007

March 20, 2007

Until today, there have been no surprises in Jean Charest's campaign to earn a second term in power. He's played it safe, campaigning on his record in health care and "rigorous" public administration. Not exciting stuff.

Today, Charest changed course. He is promising Quebecers if the Liberals are re-elected, he will reduce the income taxes average earners pay.

This would be done by raising the brackets which control how much income tax one pays on each segment of their wages. Those percentages go up according to how much you earn. If implemented, this cut would result, according to the Quebec Liberal Party, in savings of about $750 for a dual-income household of $100,000 with children.

The cost of this promise would be covered by the $700 million dollars Stephen Harper's federal government announced in additional transfers to Quebec this year through the country's equalization program, which redistributes wealth between rich and poorer provinces.

The promise comes with just six days remaining in a campaign which has not gone as Charest had hoped. The Liberals were banking on the perceived weaknesses of Mario Dumont and his ADQ party (contentious views on social issues, two candidates forced to withdraw from campaign for comments), and the PQ’s André Boisclair, and his unpopular vow to hold a third referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

But the Liberals' own record in power (the cornerstone of Charest's campaign) is itself unpopular: nearly 6 out of 10 Quebecers consistently tell pollsters they are either dissatisfied, or VERY dissatisfied with the job Charest has done.

The tax cut promise looks, well, desperate. But that is not the main problem.

The main problem is that Charest made a much more grandiose tax cut promise in 2003. To beat then PQ leader Bernard Landry, Charest promised $1 billion per year in personal tax cuts. Once in power, that didn't happen. Lower income families received new credits and baby bonus cheques. But the middle-class did not get what they were promised.

Today's new pledge is clearly a last-ditch strategy to bring back voters who have decided the ADQ's more right-wing approach is what they want. Those voters are also largely cynical about the "old" parties — the Liberals and the PQ — and it seems to me they likely still feel stung by Charest's reneg on tax cuts in the last four years, and may simply not believe he would deliver this time, either.

March 15, 2007

Mario Dumont's Common Sense Revolution

I'm in my hotel room in Montreal, the morning after my first day on ADQ Leader Mario Dumont's campaign tour. Dumont is spending an hour answering questions this morning on a French-language radio station. Naturally, subject number one was that "surprise" document Dumont hauled out during the leaders' debate on tv on Tuesday night. Several documents actually. Memos sent to and fro in 2004 and 2005 between engineers working for the Ministry of Transportation, regarding the state of the Concorde Bridge overpass in Laval. That overpass, of course, came crashing down in September 2006. Five people were killed, including a pregnant woman.

Mario Dumont's claim, is that the memos from two years earlier should have served as a red flag to the government, suggesting the Charest administration could have done something to prevent the tragedy.

At least, that was Dumont's message on debate night. After he was scrutinized by reporters, the message changed. Now, Dumont says the transport minister claimed after the accident there had been no clues which might have indicated the structure was at risk. He says the memos prove the minister was not being truthful.

On the radio show this morning, Dumont told his interviewer Paul Arcand that "it's obvious the premier and the minister do not see every single note that flies through the bureaucracy. That's obvious. But when an overpass collapses, common sense just makes you say, 'whoa!'"

Common sense. Where have I heard that before? In the 1990's Mike Harris' Progressive Conservative government in Ontario branded its slash and burn policy of public services the "Common Sense Revolution". What's the point in spending all this money? There's no return! That makes no sense.

The notion of common sense, whether it applies to government spending, or cause-and-effect arguments around the reasons an overpass came down and killed people, is fraught with problems. For example, the province's top civil servant in charge of highway structures, AND the head of the provincial association of government engineers, both say the small cracks noted in the Concorde overpass three years ago have no connection to the collapse two years later.

"Common Sense" makes you say, "Yeah, right". But, if having cracks indicated imminent risk of collapse, wouldn't almost EVERY structure around us be on the verge of crumbling into a pile of stones? The Concorde Bridge overpass had some major structural faults, which may or may not have resulted in cracks two years ago. Pierre-Marc Johnson's commission of inquiry is digging into it, and will report this autumn.

But Mario Dumont's linking the two with little or no engineering knowledge falls right into line with his overall populist philosophy: if most people could reasonably be persuaded to think it, IT must be true.

By the way, Mario Dumont also proposes the reduction and elimination of some government services (school boards, welfare and employment offices, municipal agglomeration councils), and a slowdown in public health care spending, to be replaced by private services for people who can pay out of pocket. C'est juste du gros bon sens, as Mario Dumont likes to say.

March 3, 2007

Liberal optimism

Jean Charest comes across as a surprisingly confident candidate to win his job back in this election. He says it, point blank. "I'm optimistic I will form the government after the election on March 26th," he told a crowd of lookers-on at an outdoor ice park on the shores of Lac-Saint-Jean yesterday. Of course, what leader in their right mind would call an election if he didn't believe he had a solid chance of winning.

Still, Charest's relationship with Quebecers has not been a warm, loving affair. More like one's relationship with his dentist. You hope for no unwelcome surprises, and you might even come away happy. But it's an experience you don't particularly look forward to.

The numbers tell the story: only about one in three Quebecers say they'd vote for Charest in opinion polls, and the satisfaction rate with his government hovers around 40%.

Charest believes he has built a rapport with Quebecers which he did not enjoy prior to his election to the premier's office in 2003. In fact, since his party's defeat to Lucien Bouchard's Parti Québécois in 1998, Charest has spent an inordinate amount of time criss-crossing the province, making direct contact with supporters and adversaries alike. It isn't surprising why.

Even if at a political level, in his governing style or decision-making process, he sparks the ire of just about anyone asking for something, whether it be union leaders, interest groups pressing for more subsidized housing or lower university tuition, or medical specialists.

In person, though, it is a different story. Charest is, if you've ever met him, a personable, engaged, and friendly guy. Hard not to like. No wonder he works so hard to meet as many people as possible in person. Unlike other leaders who generate visceral support through the glow of a t.v. screen, Charest's great handicap is that he comes across to many as stern, gruff, and unimpassioned. But, once he can sit down with you, shake your hand, flash a smile, or share an anecdote, you're more likely to be sold.

And that is just what he has been doing. Therein, he is convinced he will win this campaign, not on the merits of this 33-day race to build and galvanize support. For Jean Charest, the race began long before February 21st, and by the time the writ dropped, most of his work was done. All this campaign is about, for Jean Charest, is crossing his t's and dotting his i's.

And hoping he doesn't slip on any banana peels.

March 1, 2007

Idle hands

I'll be the first to admit I'm a political nerd. I studied politics, my job is to run around after politicians and tell you what they're up to... and now here we are, Election 2007, and I'm on Jean Charest's campaign tour, and we're just pulling into Asbestos for a good ol' fashioned, Thursday evening political hoedown.

The problem is, this is just about the ONLY thing we've done all day. In less than a week, the Liberal leader's campaign has ground down to a near halt, after blasting out of the starting gates.

In the first couple of days of campaigning, there were multiple speeches in front of multiple crowds. And more importantly, there were multiple news conferences during which we, the reporters, could tap Charest for answers to fill out our stories.

The day now goes something like this (all times local):
  1. 9:00 a.m. news conference (usually in the same location where Charest will perform a walk-around tour with the owners of some factory or other business).
  2. 2:00 p.m. photo opportunity in a second location, with the second owner of a second business of some sort... no statements or questions from Charest.
  3. 7:30 p.m. rally and speech in front of Liberal party supporters.
Since item number two doesn't really include the opportunity to gather much in the way of useful information, you can see pretty clearly how the days shape up.

From the end of the morning news conference (usually around 10:00 a.m.) until the start of Jean Charest's evening speech (usually around 8:00 p.m.), we have no access to new information from the party leader. That’s ten hours of web surfing (if they don't park us out in the middle of the countryside with no mobile signal), snacking, and seething.

It's a play-it-safe strategy for Charest, not unlike Stephen Harper's game in the 2005-6 federal campaign. Limit public appearances, and you limit the chances of saying the wrong thing and getting nailed with a negative headline the next day.

It's also manipulation of the media: limit the number of comment and the point of your message track, or part of it, is more likely to make it through the scrutiny of the news media covering the campaign.

Feb. 26, 2007

There's a strange irony in this election campaign. Actually, when you spend your days in a tour bus filled with Liberal Party spin doctors and diesel fumes, irony is the order of the day.

One of them is stark, though, in this election campaign, especially n an era where Quebecers, like all Canadians, are placing the environment at or near the top of their main public policy concerns.

Here’s the irony: on top of all that diesel fuel three buses are burning (yes, three buses: one for leader Jean Charest and his entourage; another for the television crews covering each step of the campaign day; the third is reserved for reporters in print and radio), and the spew whizzing up and down Quebec’s highways (on the first day of the campaign, the Liberal tour drove all the way from Quebec City to Sherbrooke for an hour-long event in front of 250 people, then drove all the way back to spend the night), life takes on a disponsable quality.

Because of the pace of Jean Charest's schedule, we usually don't have time to stop and eat proper meals. Instead, takeout is provided so reporters may munch while pounding out one more story about the Liberal leader's latest promise or retort to André Boisclair or Mario Dumont. That takeout more often than not comes under a dome of thick, transparent plastic.

Then there are the press releases. And daily schedules. And newspaper clippings. All on paper, in spite of this electronic age, where all could easily be transmitted paper free to our BlackBerries and/or email accounts. Thousands of pages a week fly through our buses, spinning, notifying, clarifying, but most of all.... polluting.

The political leaders talk about sustainable development, cutting back consumption of materials, fossil fuels, and other energy sources. But their resolve on the issue seems to come through when their own ambitions are on the line. In an election campaign, they pull out all the stops (and recycling bins), because winning can't be compromised by trying to be green.

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About The Author »

Tim Duboyce joined CBC radio in 1997. Tim has a keen interest in the changing dynamic of the political landscape in Quebec.

Tim has covered provincial affairs from the National Assembly in Quebec City, and from Montreal. Tim studied Political Science and Communications at the University of Ottawa, before entering journalism.

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