It was just a year and a half ago that Liberal Jean Charest won a majority government in Quebec. That was nice, we all thought. All was well with federalism. The separatist movement would be on its derriere for many more years to come. The next election wasn’t due until 2013.
As for Charest, it was smooth sailing. He was doing so well that there was talk of him leaving the provincial scene one day and perhaps returning to Ottawa. He was a former Tory leader and could perhaps become leader of that party again. Or, being a Liberal, he could perhaps lead that federal formation.
Politics being politics, all has gone awry. Charest is in the dumpster, the Parti Québécois is leading in Quebec, an election could be called within a year or two, and the separatists could be back in power.
In politics two things can rock a government — scandal and a bad budget. One is punishing enough. Get two in the same time frame and look out. That’s what has happened to Charest’s Liberals. They’ve had both.
Given that the setbacks have happened early in his five-year term, there would normally be time to recover. But that’s not necessarily the case. The Liberal majority in Quebec is razor-thin. The National Assembly has 125 seats and Charest has 66 of them. But discount the Speaker, a member with cancer and a member who has just been expelled and he’s down to 63, a one-seat majority. Given a defection or two, or byelection losses, and the majority is gone.
Charest has launched an inquiry into allegations by his former justice minister that the appointment of judges was being dictated by Liberal bagmen. Last week came another bombshell when Charest expelled Tony Tomassi, a cabinet member caught up in allegations of kickbacks. Before all this, Charest’s belt-tightening budget, designed to attack the deficit, squeezed too tight on most stomachs and was met with public scorn.
The latest poll shows Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois winning a majority with 41 per cent of the vote. The Liberals are at 30 per cent. It need be remembered also that the separatists are doing well at the federal level with the Bloc Québécois holding a big lead over federalist formations.
For many years, the sovereignty option has been dormant. It was a pleasant respite. The country was able to get on with other things without that black cloud overhead.
But so much for the respite. In the space of a couple of months, the black cloud has returned.
Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.