Former Quebec premier Jean Charest brings both notoriety and baggage to Conservative race

Click to play video: 'Jean Charest launches Conservative leadership bid in Calgary'
Jean Charest launches Conservative leadership bid in Calgary
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest launched his campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday in Calgary. Adam MacVicar reports – Mar 11, 2022

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest launched his bid for the leadership of the federal Conservative party in Calgary on Thursday, thousands of miles from the province he led for nine years.

Two Quebec politics experts who spoke to The Canadian Press said Charest brings a high-profile name with a proven track record of winning, but also considerable baggage that could harm his chances in a general election.

While his campaign slogan describes him as “built to win,” Charest’s three terms as Quebec premier were often bumpy, marked by low approval ratings, massive students protests and unproven corruption allegations that would dog him until his resignation and beyond.

Université Laval political science Prof. Eric Montigny describes Charest as “a divisive personality who leaves no one indifferent.”

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In an interview, he said Charest’s time as premier was marred by scandals and investigations which, although they did not find fault, left “big, dark clouds” on his legacy.

They include an eight-year investigation by Quebec’s anti-corruption squad, which looked at alleged illegal party financing during Charest’s time as Quebec Liberal leader; the Bastarache Commission into allegations of partisan judicial appointments; and the Charbonneau Commission, which investigated corruption in the province’s construction industry.

Charest has always vigorously defended himself against all allegations, and none of the investigations found fault with him. A $1.5-million lawsuit he filed against the Quebec government over the anti-corruption unit investigation remains active. That probe, which began in 2014, was recently concluded and no charges were laid.

He left the federal Progressive Conservatives to lead the Quebec Liberals in 1998, three years after he emerged as a fiery and passionate advocate of federalism in the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. He lost the 1998 provincial election to Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois, though his party won the popular vote.

Charest and the Liberals went on to form government in 2003 and he was re-elected with a minority government in 2007 and a majority in 2008.

Click to play video: 'Former Quebec premier to run for Conservative leadership'
Former Quebec premier to run for Conservative leadership

Charest exited politics in 2012 after his provincial Liberals lost an election that followed massive protests over university tuition hikes. Accused of instigating students by taking a hard line with protesters, Charest lost his own riding of Sherbrooke.

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While he’s critical of his record, Montigny said Charest also had accomplishments, especially when it came to international relations. But he believes Charest is facing an uphill climb to win the federal Tory leadership race and a general election.

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But Martin Paquet, a professor of modern Quebec and Canadian political history at Universite Laval, doesn’t think Charest should be counted out.

In an interview, he described Charest as the ultimate “political animal.” A devotee of Sun Tzu’s book, `Art of War, Charest is also a skilled tactician who knows how to exploit his rivals’ weaknesses, Paquet said.

“He’s able to sense the fault lines in a terrain and is able to see the balance of power that is present in the political space. And if he shows up now, it’s because he thinks he has a chance,” Paquet said.

READ MORE: Some Tories want a tougher stand on Quebec’s Bill 21. Will that happen in the leadership race?

Charest’s Tory opponents have branded him a “Conservative of convenience” and a closeted Liberal, but Paquet believes the ex-premier’s Quebec record, especially of fiscal conservatism, shows he’s genuine.

Despite its name, Quebec’s Liberal party is not left-wing, but rather a “coalition” party that brought together both left and right-wing interests that had federalism in common, Paquet said. Charest’s experience in uniting a diverse party could be an asset in the Conservative race, he added.

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The brief biography on Charest’s newly launched website appears to sidestep his years in provincial politics. While it refers to his Quebec northern development plan and the fact he won three elections, the only time the word “Quebec” appears in the blurb is in reference to Charest stepping up to lead the federalist charge in the 1995 referendum.

The biography does not mention that Charest served nine years as Quebec’s premier and 14 as head of the provincial Liberal party.

Click to play video: 'Federal Conservative leadership race heats up'
Federal Conservative leadership race heats up

That omission underscores the challenges that Charest is facing, Paquet said. The last premier to successfully become prime minister was Nova Scotia Conservative Charles Tupper in 1896, he added.

And aside from minimizing his time as Quebec premier, Charest is also positioning himself against the hallmark piece of legislation from the government of Premier Francois Legault: Bill 21, a controversial secularism law prohibiting public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job. The law has shown to be popular in Quebec but less so in the rest of Canada.

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Earlier Thursday, Charest did a series of media interviews during which he expressed his opposition to the law. Some Conservatives want the party to sharpen its stance against the legislation. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown has already forcefully rejected the law, and he is expected to join the race Sunday.

Polls place Charest behind Tory MP Pierre Poilievre, another leadership contender, among Conservative voters. Others show most Quebecers have a negative impression of Charest due to the investigations, the student protests and budget austerity measures, Paquet said.

Gabriel-Nadeau Dubois, a former leader of the student protests and now the co-spokesperson of the Quebec solidaire party, recently described Charest’s legacy as one of `”orruption and austerity.”

“The legacy of Jean Charest in Quebec is a democracy weakened by corruption, a land that is ravaged, in terms of the environment; it’s a historic delay in our battle against climate change and our public services in ruins,” he said in February at the legislature.

READ MORE: Jean Charest says Conservatives are ‘divided,’ must unite to provide ‘national vision’

Both Paquet and Montigny have doubts that the Quebec population will vote massively for a Charest-led Conservative party in a federal election, especially due to the negative impressions left over from the student protests. But the fact that Charest decided to kick off his campaign in Alberta suggests he’s setting his sights further west.

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However, Paquet said that if Charest wins the leadership, anything can happen in a general election.

After such a long stint in politics, Charest “knows very well that you don’t have to have the majority to win,” he said.

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