“I had to reintroduce myself to this campaign,” he says, reflecting on his long career in federal and provincial politics, before a more recent stint of 10 years in the private sector. “When I started, I didn’t expect it to be a 28-year-old race. I didn’t expect all the turns, the events. I had a lot of moments of success and also a lot times when there have been failures and times of exhilaration and times of disappointment I have had them all.
He says he’s not an “altar boy” and “you’re not sitting in front of a saint”. But he’s here to argue that his experience has more than prepared him to lead and, in a way, history can and should repeat itself. This is far from being his first rodeo.
This is not even the first time that others have convinced Charest to run for the leadership of a party.
In 1998, when Charest was leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party, he bowed to increasing pressure from other politicians and the public to take over the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party, which is separate from the federal Liberal Party.
It was five years later, during the 2003 provincial election, that Conservative MP Alain Rayes met him for the first time. “I lost this election because of Jean Charest,” he said in an interview in French. He ran for the Action Démocratique du Québec and lost to a Liberal. He remains convinced that this is “manifest proof” of Charest’s political magic.
Charest won a majority government for his party and remained premier for nine years. If he reintroduced himself to voters during the federal leadership campaign, it was by trying hard not to reintroduce them into his luggage.
Although Charest’s approach to Quebec’s fiscal situation was praised and the province fared better than almost anywhere else during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, he was constantly plagued by allegations of unproven corruption and several of his ministers had to step down due to allegations of conflict of interest. A lengthy investigation into allegations of illegal funding within the provincial Liberal party under his leadership ended only earlier this year without recommending any charges to the police. Charest is suing the province over this.
Although he now bristles at any accusation that he was not aligned with the federal Conservative Party, he was not always a friend of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
During a tighter campaign in the 2007 provincial election, Harper agreed to increase federal transfers to Quebec, which came at a political cost. But Charest used some of that money to make income tax cuts, to the dismay of other prime ministers.
Asked if it was possible to draw a straight line between that event and Harper’s support for his opponent, Charest said any animosity was on the former prime minister’s side. But he couldn’t help joking: “Now a Tory disappointed to cut income taxes, that’s a novelty.
Marc-André Leclerc was the Conservative Party’s director of political operations for Quebec during Charest’s last two years as premier. “We never saw him as an ally,” he says. “After he retired, we didn’t see him involved in the party.” Of course, Leclerc concedes, “it’s good policy to fight Ottawa,” especially in Quebec.
Charest left office in 2012 in the wake of massive student protests that erupted after his government moved to raise tuition fees at Quebec universities, and then introduced a bill that would impose restrictions on protests.
When asked if he has any regrets, Charest replies, “It wouldn’t be honest for anyone to say to you, ‘No, I did everything exactly as it should have been done.’ For one specific example, he said he would have differed in his approach to employment law.
“I think I changed seven in the same year and really made the unions my opponents,” he says. “I would have done it differently.”
There is an anecdote that Charest wishes to highlight, saying: “it tells a story about me and about this race and about who I am.
With growing popular support in Quebec for a policy that would target the wearing of religious symbols, Charest in 2007 created a commission led by philosopher Charles Taylor and historian Gérard Bouchard that would look into the issue of accommodations for religious beliefs.
The commission recommended that people in certain positions – judges, prosecutors, police and prison guards – not wear religious clothing or symbols. Charest didn’t bite.
“It would have been more popular for me to do it than not to do it. I said no because I just didn’t believe it.
There is a direct line to Charest post today. He says if he was premier and Quebec’s secularism law — Bill 21, which prohibits certain officials in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work — had to be challenged in the Supreme Court , his government would intervene and argue against the restriction of Charter rights.
Rayes, who thinks the importance of Bill 21 in the Conservative leadership race is overstated, was the first to approach Charest to come to the rescue of a struggling federal party earlier this year. He and others worked “very hard” to convince him, he said, and they succeeded. He thinks Quebecers will line up behind Charest.
Shortly after decrying how modern politicians are still chasing “shiny objects,” an unspoken criticism of social media, Charest is on Sparks Street, a few blocks from the Hill, looking for a place to buy a newspaper. Like the hotel encounter, except perhaps for the price of yogurt, it’s another moment that feels decoupled from time. A person could have met Charest during his last term in Parliament and had the same interaction.
Pollster Philippe Fournier says Charest is a gifted debater and a formidable activist. It has always been true.
As a potential premier, he may have a “hard ceiling” in Quebec today, where some voters will not forgive Charest for some of his decisions as premier or even his role in the “no” campaign against the separation during the referendum of 1995. .
But Fournier says he has “no doubt” that Charest would win the next federal election if he were to win now, an outcome he considers highly unlikely.
“It would have been a great story, when you think about it.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 4, 2022.
Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press