To those asking about Jean Charest’s political legacy, the answer is quite simple: He saved the country.
And he did so on several occasions, beginning with the 1995 Quebec referendum, a one-point game that could well have gone the other way without Charest’s unrivalled performance.
As the leader then of a Progressive Conservative remnant of only two members of Parliament, he was at first relegated to the “B” circuit in what became a momentous October campaign. By the end, Charest proved to be the No side’s answer to Lucien Bouchard.
Everywhere he went, Charest waved his Canadian passport as a prop. But fundamentally, he restored pride and passion to the Canadian option when it was needed most. It was Charest, not Jean Chrétien or Daniel Johnson, who energized the crowds in the final week, when the federalist forces finally reversed a dangerous slide.
The result — 50.58 per cent for the No side, to 49.42 per cent for the Yes — was as close as it gets. If less than six-10ths of one per cent of the vote had gone the other way, the country would have been lost. And it was Charest who gave the No side the rhetorical lift when it mattered most.
The 1995 referendum also paved the way to Charest’s assuming of the Quebec Liberal leadership, when Johnson stood down early in 1998.
The referendum changed Charest’s career path, and it also damaged Chrétien’s legacy in that he responded by creating the sponsorship program, leading to the scandal that taints the federal Liberal brand in Quebec to this day.
While he would have preferred to remain in Ottawa rebuilding the Tory party, Charest knew he had no choice but to go to Quebec.
Quebec elections are unique among provincial campaigns in that they are the only ones in which the future of the country is at stake.
And the 1998 election was no exception. Bouchard, by now premier and leader of the Parti Québécois, proposed his famous “winning conditions” as a prerequisite for another referendum. Charest stormed down the home stretch of the campaign, and though Bouchard won a majority of seats, Charest won a plurality of votes, 43.6 per cent to 42.9 per cent.
What that meant was no winning conditions, and Bouchard knew it. By early 2001, only halfway through his mandate, he abruptly resigned to spend more time with his family.
In 2003 and again in 2008, Charest won majority governments, which precluded the possibility of another referendum. Only in the 2007 election, when Mario Dumont emerged as the alternative to Charest and reduced the Liberals to minority status, was the future of Canada not in play.
And even in the 2012 election, amid all the turmoil in the streets and accusations of official corruption, Charest still saved the future, not only for the Liberals, but for Canada itself. He somehow delivered 50 seats, by winning 31.2 per cent of the vote, to 54 seats and 31.9 per cent for the PQ. With such a weak minority government, Pauline Marois could not call another referendum.
Having lost his own seat of Sherbrooke, Charest got to walk away and start a new life, with a national and international law practice.
Historians will have good material on his mistakes in office. But there are also impressive achievements. On inter-provincial relations, he founded the Council of the Federation. In the 2004 Health Accord with Ottawa, he won recognition of asymmetrical federalism in that Quebec alone would decide how to spend its share of $41 billion in new funding.
Within his own cabinet, he achieved gender parity, and appointed women to such major portfolios as finance and education. On his watch, Quebec created 400,000 new jobs, and today has an unemployment rate lower than that in Ontario and the United States. And he had a big idea, Plan Nord.
Through the worst of times, his caucus always remained loyal. This was something Charest learned in Ottawa from Brian Mulroney, who often said that “you can’t lead without the caucus.” Even in the turmoil of 2012, Charest’s caucus was rock solid.
But above all, it is his contribution to keeping the country whole that constitutes the major piece of his legacy. It doesn’t get any bigger, or better, than that.
© Copyright 2013