Charest says he's in Quebec to stay

Embattled Quebec Premier Jean Charest says he won't try to return to federal politics but wants a fourth term in the highest office in his home province.

Premier dismisses suggestions of move back to federal scene

Quebec Premier Jean Charest sits down for an interview this week with the CBC's Tim Duboyce at the legislative building in Quebec City. ((Nick Gamache/CBC))
Embattled Quebec Premier Jean Charest says he won't try to return to federal politics but wants a fourth term in the highest office in his home province.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with the CBC radio program The House, Charest also renewed attacks on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's environmental policy, accusing him of waging a timid, U.S.-style war on climate change.

Many political observers have been predicting Charest will try to return to Ottawa after more than 12 years on the provincial scene, given his public appeal and recognition factor nationally.

But when asked whether he still had his sights set on 24 Sussex Drive, Charest was blunt.

"No," he replied without hesitation. "I have a great job that I enjoy. … It took me a long while to get to where I am, so I'm very happy where I am."

Charest has won the last three general elections in Quebec, including the most recent vote in 2008, which returned him to majority power after 18 months running a precarious minority government — the first in the province in more than 100 years.

The premier said that not only does he intend to remain in provincial politics, but that he'll also seek another term.

"I've done four elections in Quebec, including the one in '98," he said, referrring to his only provincewide loss as Quebec Liberal leader. "In all four elections, I won a plurality of the votes. Four consecutive elections.

"I think five is a good number."

Charest led the federal Progressive Conservatives for five years, until 1998, when he switched to provincial politics to head up the Quebec Liberal Party.

He said his loss in 1998 to the Parti Québécois under Lucien Bouchard came despite the fact his Liberals received more votes.

"Because of the makeup of the seats, Lucien Bouchard won a majority."

Charest's determination to win another term was expressed against a backdrop of dropping numbers for his Liberal government, which has been mired for months in allegations of corruption and cronyism.

'No case' for corruption probe

The Opposition Parti Québécois, and its leader, Pauline Marois, have made repeated calls for a public inquiry into suspicions of bid-rigging and Liberal Party kickbacks in connection with the awarding of roadwork contracts.

There are also suggestions of undue partisan favouritism in the selection of Quebec Court judges. Charest appeared to seethe when asked in the interview to respond to the allegations.

"There is no case," he said. "There is none. Yet, I open the Globe and Mail, I think in June, and I see 'Scandal-ridden government' as the headline."

Charest accused his political opponents of having a "scorched earth" policy when it comes to attacking his government. He insisted the allegations that have made the front pages for months in Quebec are based on unsubstantiated insinuations by the PQ.

"It's the kind of politics I think most citizens abhor," he said. "That is quite disdainful. Yet that is the strategy that Ms. Marois has chosen."

The premier again rejected the growing calls for an inquiry into allegations of corruption. He argued that in the absence of any hard evidence of wrongdoing, it would not make sense to open a broader probe beyond the police investigations already underway.

"Why not have a trial over the alleged murders that we've caused somewhere?" he asked. "I mean, you don't just hold inquiries because … there have to be facts that support this kind of an action."

'Never' criticized oilsands

Charest, who has modelled himself as a leader in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, also took sides with Alberta's desire to further develop its production of oil and gas.

He insisted he was misquoted last December, when various media outlets reported he had attacked the future development of the oilsands when he attended the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

"That never happened," Charest said.

The oilsands are here to stay, he said, and there is no point trying to fight their development.

His position came as a surprise to some, including Matthew Bramley, a climate change specialist with the Pembina Institute, an environmental protection organization.

"I certainly think it's disappointing that Premier Charest would have a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward the development of the oilsands, when emission increases there can completely wipe out all the effort made by Quebec to reduce its own emissions," Bramley told CBC News.

Others, however, said it is not surprising Charest would try to placate other premiers while promoting aggressive cuts in emissions at home.

Gilbert Lavoie, a political columnist for the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil, told CBC News that Charest must maintain friendly relations with his counterparts in other provinces.

"He wants to make sure he is not seen as fighting against Alberta's interests or working against Alberta's interests," Lavoie said.

By contrast, Charest's relationship with the Harper government has deteriorated considerably, Lavoie noted, and the premier has little to lose by keeping his attacks focused on the Conservatives in Ottawa.

Charest played this part during the CBC interview, taking aim at Harper over Canada's climate change policy.

"Where I do not agree with the federal government, is the decision of the federal government of Canada to have a formal position that says our position is that of the Unites States of America," he said. "That, I don't agree with. I think the interests of Canada are different."