If Jean Charest is looking for someone to blame for nearly losing the election this week, he can start by looking in the mirror.
The leader is always the first one responsible for what happens in a campaign. Others shape the leader’s tour, turn polling and advertising into strategy and tactics, write speeches, keep the media hounds both fed and at bay, and find a suitable role for the party’s team of candidates. But it is always the leader who makes the big decisions, and carries the entire burden of the campaign on his back.
Reduced to a minority government, the real Jean Charest finally showed up on election night. He needed to appear chastened, humbled and responsive to the challenge all at once. And he did, acknowledging first that "Quebecers have rendered a judgment, a severe judgment" on his government and himself, promising to "draw the lessons of this verdict" and "bow before this will." In other words : "Message understood." Good.
Then, at his news conference the next day. Charest took full responsibility for the outcome of the campaign. Quite right.
In the first place, it was Charest’s decision to move up the election call to February from April, to take advantage of Andre Boisclair’s meltdown in the polls. A more orderly march to an election call might have resulted in a more coherent campaign, once more focused on the future than on a record resulting in dangerously high levels of dissatisfaction.
It would also have given the Liberals more time to see Mario Dumont in the rear-view mirror, rather than his suddenly appearing in their blind spot as he did in the second week of the campaign.
Furthermore, Charest could have done a proper victory lap on the federal budget, as a sitting premier tucking the gains for Quebec into his own budget and touting them at a Liberal policy convention originally scheduled for last weekend. In the event, he was one of three candidates for his own job, all claiming or assigning credit for resolving the fiscal imbalance.
Then Charest took $700 million of "new" equalization money and announced a tax cut with the entire amount, neglecting to emphasize another $1.6 billion next year in extra federal funding under the "old" equalization formula, as well as transfer payments. The political class panned Charest’s equalization cash call, and his opponents jumped on the opportunity to remind voters of his broken 2003 campaign promise to cut taxes by $1 billion a year.
While there was no constitutional issue with equalizing fiscal frameworks rather than services, there was an immediate and understandable backlash in the rest of Canada, where voters saw themselves paying for a tax cut for Quebecers, who already enjoy services such as $7-a-day child care and $1,668 university tuition fees not available in their provinces.
Apart from defending Quebec’s interests in Ottawa, part of the premier’s job is promoting good will toward Quebec in the rest of Canada. No sitting Quebec premier has ever had a better understanding of Ottawa and the rest of the country, or accumulated more equity with both. But last week, Charest spent it down significantly on a promise he might not even be able to deliver in a minority House.
And then there was the general tenor of the campaign. If the Liberals wonder why they couldn’t get their message out it’s because, from Day 1, they lost control of the travelling media circus and never got it under control until the final week.
A 50-minute daily media availability is an invitation to a drive-by shooting. On all three leaders’ tours, the media did virtually nothing to illuminate such important as health care, education reform, tuition fees or fiscal federalism. The parties and leaders had positions, the media just didn’t report them.
At the leaders’ debate, the crucial event at mid-campaign, both Dumont and Boisclair looked sharper than Charest, who had the air of an undertaker in an ill-fitting suit. It took Dumont’s cheap shot, virtually blaming Charest personally for the tragic collapse of the Autoroute 19 overpass, to waken him from his slumber.
On the campaign trail, Charest performed up to his capacity only in fits and starts, at events such as International Women’s Day, where he clearly fed on the enthusiasm of the crowd.
But then why would did the Liberals keep Charest in a premier’s posture ? Why wasn’t the best campaigner of his generation allowed out to play ? Even his best friends and closest associates were mystified, and wondered what was wrong with him.
As it used to be said of Bill Clinton - let the big dog run.
For Charest and the Liberals, that should be the biggest lesson of this campaign.