Oh, Canada! Charest plays waiting game

March 17, 1998|By Myron Beckenstein

THE QUESTION facing Jean Charest is whether to answer the call of the Canadian multitudes and make a few changes in his life. Such as leaving the fray of national politics and entering the one in his Quebec homeland. Such as leaving the Conservative Party, which he heads, and joining the opposition Liberals.

All for the good of the country.

It does make sense.

Quebec has been under the grip of a separatist government since 1994. Feeling irreparably slighted by the federal government in Ottawa and by the rest of Canada, it wants to whip out the political chain saw and cut loose the predominantly French-speaking province.

Two years ago, it held a referendum on the subject, and, thanks to much confusion over what independence actually meant, a ballot question intentionally worded vaguely and a shift in the fourth quarter to Lucien Bouchard as quarterback, the separatists came within 1.2 percentage points of winning the vote.

Try, try again

But losing wasn't the end of it. In Quebec politics, if you win, you win; if you lose, you wait a bit and try again. Mr. Bouchard, who soon became the premier of Quebec, has indicated another referendum will come after he wins re-election, with the election to be held this year or next, depending on when he feels strongest.

The pro-unity side has been hampered by ineffective leadership in Quebec and Ottawa. Somehow, the federal forces and the other provinces have been muted by Quebec's stance that any comments they might make would not be standing up to preserve the country but interference in Quebec's internal affairs.

But that situation is slowly changing. The federal government has gone to court for an advisory opinion on whether Quebec has a right to secede unilaterally. The case was heard in February, with a decision expected in a few months.

Then, a few weeks ago, the ineffectual leader of the Quebec Liberal Party announced he was resigning and no one beat a path to his door urging him to change his mind. Instead, they beat a path to Mr. Charest's door.

Their plea was apocalyptic. If Quebec separatism was allowed to thrive and if another referendum was held and the separatists won, the very least to result would be total chaos.

Mr. Charest, 39, who was Canada's youngest Cabinet minister ever in the previous Conservative federal government, was assured he not only was the best choice to prevent this, but also the only choice. One respected poll says he could beat Mr. Bouchard 45 percent to 34 in an election, and no other Liberal leader could even win.

Such rewards aside, Mr. Charest has two problems.

First, he prefers national politics to provincial. He already has a tough job trying to restore the Conservative Party to something resembling life. After two successive majority governments under Brian Mulroney, the country took out its growing dislike for the man by dropping the Tories to just two seats in the 1993 election. It didn't even qualify for official party perks anymore.

Mr. Charest became party leader and started trying to rebuild. In last year's election, the Tory total swelled to 20.

Mr. Charest aimed to bring it back even more and maybe someday become prime minister. Switching to provincial politics might be the end of his personal dream.

The second problem was that the job opening was for "head of the Liberal Party." And Mr. Charest was head of the opposition Conservative Party.

The Conservatives don't have a successful party in Quebec provincial politics. To stop Mr. Bouchard, the Liberals, who are vaguely related to the federal Liberals, are the only hope.

But if Mr. Charest moved to the Quebec Liberals, this also might mean the end of the national Conservative Party.

Riding into the sunrise from the west in 1993, even as the Tories were sinking faster than the Titanic, was a new right-wing party, Reform. When the Tories won two seats in 1993, Reform won 52 and just missed becoming the official opposition -- the No. 2 party in the country.

Last year, when the Conservatives jumped to 20, Reform jumped to 60.

Though Reform is further to the right than the Tories, and with a bit of a mean streak that the older party doesn't possess, the question soon became, why does Canada need two right-wing parties?

Part of the answer was that Mr. Charest and the Reform leaders did not like each other and neither wanted to see his party sublimated.

But if Mr. Charest moves to Quebec, there is no strong person waiting in the wings to take over the Tories. And the party may resume its plunge to the bottom of the political ocean.

Preston Manning, the Reform leader, sensing the opportunity, said the other day, "If it's OK for the leader of the Conservative Party to go to the [Quebec] Liberals for the sake of a greater cause, it should be OK for other people connected to traditional parties to look at other options."

But the Conservatives' leader in the House of Commons, Peter )) McKay, saw things differently.

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