On the morning of March 10, Liberal campaign director Raymond Boucher received the latest ”œinternals” from FrancÌ§ois Décarie of Ipsos, the party’s pollster in the Quebec campaign.
It told quite a different story than the CROP poll splashed across the top of ”œla une” that day in the big Saturday edition of La Presse.
The newspaper headline told of a tightening three-way race, with 33 percent for the Quebec Liberals, 29 percent for the Parti Québécois (PQ), and 26 percent for the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ).
”œThat’s not what we’ve got,” Boucher said. ”œLet me see here, just a minute. We have 37, 29, 26.”
The Liberals were 4 points further ahead in their own tracking, due mainly to a more aggressive distribution of undecideds and ”œdiscreets” in their favour. The Liberals gen- erally allocated themselves this vote on a 3-1 basis over each of the other two leading parties. This is what Robert Bourassa used to call ”œthe ballot box bonus,” a silent 4-point election day bounce for the Liberals that is generally unre- ported in the polls.
The other two numbers, 29 and 26, were identical.
”œExcept for one thing,” Boucher said. ”œWe’ve got Mario in second place.”
It was the day the Liberals realized that Mario Dumont might finish second in the Quebec election, and that if they didn’t find a way to stop his growth, and soon, he might even win ”” as Bob Rae had won in Ontario in 1995, to the surprise of everyone, including himself.
The Liberals knew on that Saturday, just three days before the leaders’ debate and 16 days before the vote, that if they couldn’t cap Dumont’s growth at 30 percent, anything could happen, in a range from a Liberal majority to an ADQ minority government. Dumont didn’t have a ground game to deliver his vote, but there came a point where it would deliver itself, and a whole bunch of seats along with it, and that point, it was gen- erally agreed, was 30 percent.
As for André Boisclair and the PQ, Boucher flatly declared: ”œThey’re dead. People have made up their minds about him. They’ll have to bring out Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry to prop him up. We may have to prop him up a bit our- selves.” Because at that point, Dumont was winning on the splits with the other two parties, and Boisclair was losing them.
Boucher looked for confir- mation of the Liberal internals when Léger Marketing published its next poll on March 17, three days after the leaders’ debate. But he had also learned that just a few days previously the firm’s president, Jean-Marc Léger, had told a client at Quebecor ”” owners of Le Journal de Montréal and the TVA network, which were running his campaign polls ”” that the Liberals had a healthy lead and ”œthe story of this campaign is the collapse of the PQ vote.”
That day, March 10, was the nexus of the Quebec election campaign. It was the day that would re-define the tone of the March 13 leaders’ debate, with Dumont as a target and not just a leader surfing a rising tide of earned media coverage. It was the day, all parties knew, when anything became possible.
The most likely outcome, projecting seat distributions on the Liberal internals, was still a Liberal government, with Jean Charest being returned for a second term as premier. But whether in a majority or minority legislature, it also appeared for the first time that Mario ”” and everyone in Quebec called him Mario ”” might become leader of the opposition.
What made it clear this would be a realignment election was that the PQ ”” standard bearer of the sovereignty move- ment, which had four times formed gov- ernments and held two referendums in the previous 30 years ”” was heading for third place in the popular vote. Heading, in fact, for its worst showing since its first election under the founding father, René Lévesque, when it won 23 percent of the vote but only 7 seats, finishing fourth in what was then a 108-seat legislature.
In that election, Robert Bourassa’s Liberals, with 45 percent of the vote, won 72 seats, the autonomist Union Nationale with 19 percent won 17 seats and formed the opposition, while the rural Créditistes, with only 11 percent of the vote, captured 12 seats.
Thirty-seven years later that small-town bleu and rural Créditiste constituen- cy had essentially morphed into the ADQ vote. But in truth, Mario was more than the leader, even more than the founder of this right wing party, which by mid- campaign was growing in nearly every region of the province. He was the brand, indeed he even had his name on the bal- lot, since his party was registered as ADQ ”” EÌquipe Mario Dumont. He was Mario, friendly and familiar, the slightly geeky kid who comes courting and surprisingly wins the hand of your daughter.
Though only 36, he was running his fourth campaign since bolting the Quebec Liberals as leader of the youth wing in 1992 for the party’s failure to adopt the quasi-separatist Allaire Report, which would have left the Armed Forces and the Post Office, but little else, in the hands of the federal government. But Dumont has since called Allaire ”œa knife at the throat” of the Rest of Canada, quoting Stéphane Dion’s late father, Léon Dion, one of the disappointed federal- ists who recommended such a hardline strategy to Bourassa in the bitter fallout from the death of Meech Lake in 1990. In the 1995 referendum, Dumont aligned himself with the ”œYes” camp, though he soon afterward called for a moratorium on future referendums.
Thus, for PQ voters who couldn’t vote for Boisclair, and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Charest, Mario repre- sented a comfort level. He had supported the ”œYes” option, as a majority of Quebec francopho- nes had in 1995, but like a vast majority of Quebecers, he didn’t want to go there again. Dumont was in a sweet spot from the moment the campaign began, his support positioned to grow as it did from the high teens to the low 20s. The rest of its growth during the campaign, first to the mid-20s and then to the cusp of a huge breakthrough at 30 percent, was simply a momentum shift.
But Mario didn’t do it alone. He had a lot of help, from Boisclair, to be sure, but also from Charest, normally a superb campaigner who, in the first half of this campaign, was having trouble finding his voice even before he stum- bled over the question of Quebec parti- tion. Not to be forgotten was the role of Stephen Harper, in the 2006 election and since, in breaking the polarization between the federalists and separatists in Quebec who, for decades in both provincial and federal elections, had benefited from their symbiotic relation- ship on ballot questions of country.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. When Bernard Landry received only 76 percent approval in a PQ leadership review at the party’s policy convention in June 2005, he resigned on the spot, a decision he would later regret. If he had reflected on it and slept on it, as Lucien Bouchard had in a similar circumstance in 1997, he might have accepted the convention’s leadership review as a ring- ing vote of confidence in his leadership.
But instinctively Landry must have known better, that the PQ is a party that devours its leaders, let alone its young. Landry had arrived with the first wave as a young minister of economic devel- opment in the Lévesque government in 1976. Nearly 30 years on, he was taking an unceremonious leave. The most obvious and most qualified successor was Pauline Marois, who like Landry had served in every PQ government and held every significant portfolio, from Education, to Health, to Finance.
Yet the sense of the party, in the summer and fall of 2005, was that the only way to ”œkeep the dream alive” was to wave goodbye to the founding generation, and even to skip the next generation and move directly to the third generation.
At 23, André Boisclair was the youngest member ever elected to the National Assembly when he first went there in 1989. He didn’t even have a university degree, having dropped out of Université de Montréal after two years. Re-elected in 1994 and 1998, he served in the Bouchard and Landry cabinets between 1998 and 2003 in a number of portfolios, including Environment, where he left no footprints. But he was known for partying, and for being an openly gay cabinet minister.
It was also known at the time in Quebec City that while he was in cab- inet he was doing cocaine. As the Globe and Mail reported before the November 2005 leadership conven- tion, a routine audit of his office turned up over $30,000 in fake expens- es filed by his chief of staff, Luc Doray, to support his own cocaine habit. Though Boisclair approved some of the expenses, an investigation cleared him of wrongdoing. To this day, Boisclair has never answered questions about his use of cocaine: how often he used it, who supplied it, how much it cost, and whether his staff and col- leagues, were aware that he was com- mitting infractions of the Criminal Code. When the question came up with reporters during the leadership campaign, Boisclair promptly bolted his own news conference.
Despite the flashing yellow lights on character issues, Boisclair was defi- nitely of the next generation. He left the legislature in 2004 to do a year at the Kennedy School and kept a blog on his year at Harvard. He was on his way to Toronto to do a stage on Bay Street, when Landry’s resignation changed his plans. Boisclair proposed a civic rather than ethnic nationalism. Not only was his sexual orientation a non-issue, it was deemed to be cool, at least in cosmopolitan Montreal. In the end PQ members, voting by telephone, elected Boisclair on the first ballot with 53 percent of the vote. Marois wasn’t even close, at 31 percent. Marois, the most experienced member of the PQ’s front bench, soon quit public life.
The date of the 2005 leadership announcement, November 15, was the anniversary of the PQ’s first election in 1976. Clearly the PQ thought that if René Lévesque, the founding father, could take them to power and a referendum in one century, Boisclair might lead them to a restoration in the next.
From his accession to the PQ lead- ership until the election call in February 2007, Boisclair and his strate- gists had 15 months to take his charac- ter issues off the table. They never did. And by the time the election was called, it was way too late. By then, the PQ was in free fall, which was why Charest called it when it did, a full six weeks to two months ahead of his own timetable for a May election.
When Boisclair got himself a safe East End Montreal seat in a 2006 by-election, he announced that he would be building the kind of dream team that René Lévesque had assembled in 1976, when his first cab- inet contained some of the best and brightest minds of the first sovereignty wave. It soon became clear that he was overeaching, rhetorically and in every other sense. One party skeptic scoffed that his dream team was actually ”œa dream of having a team.”
And then there was the Brokeback Mountain video spoof, in which Boisclair happened into a tent with two good old cowboys named Stephen Harper and George W. Bush.
Which set up a riveting exchange between Boisclair and Charest on December 11, the last day of the fall 2006 session of the legislature before the Christmas holidays.
The immediate issue was Sunday shopping, and the number of employ- ees to be allowed on the floor of gro- cery stores after regular opening hours. This was the so-called ”œfour on the floor” rule, which worked to the bene- fit of small groceries and dépanneurs and to the disadvantage of the big boys, Loblaws, Provigo and Metro.
But the real issue was character, judgment and maturity ”” factors cer- tain to figure in the Quebec election campaign. Leading off question peri- od, Boisclair demanded to know why Charest wasn’t returning the calls of the retail interest groups.
”œMr. Speaker,” Boisclair began. ”œThere’s a word that comes to mind. I can’t say it, but it begins with an ”˜m’ and ends with an ”˜r’, and there an ”˜e’, ”˜n’, ”˜t’, ”˜e’, and ”˜u’ in between.”
All hell broke loose as the speaker ordered Boisclair to withdraw this unparliamentary language. Undaunted, Boisclair plunged on. ”œThe word that I spelled,” he insisted, ”œfits the premier of Quebec very well.”
The uproar intensified, but still Boisclair went on. ”œBetween reality that can be measured and verified,” he said, ”œand what the premier says, there is a difference.”
Charest knew a Christmas gift when he saw one. Calling Boisclair ”œthe voicemail of the PQ,” he accused him of ”œtearing his shirt off over the question of opening hours.” Charest called it ”œa demonstration” of Boisclair’s ”œlack of maturity and judgment.”
Charest then moved in for the kill. ”œThere is,” he said, ”œa difference between speaking your mind, and saying the first thing that pops into your head.”
Reeling from the exchange, Boisclair complained about Charest’s ”œwounding comments,” adding that as far as judg- ment went, he had never been forced to resign as Charest had, as a junior minis- ter in Ottawa, for calling a judge.
This brought Liberal House Leader Jacques Dupuis into the fray with a lethal comment: ”œPeople who live in glass houses,” he warned, ”œshouldn’t throw stones.”
Thus, Boisclair allowed Charest to define him as lacking the maturity and judgment to govern Quebec. Moreover,
Boisclair unwittingly focused attention on unresolved character issues with the voters over his past cocaine abuse, while the Brokeback Mountain video called attention to his sexual orientation, a silent negative for him in Québec profond.
This remarkable parliamentary exchange provided the last image of the two leaders voters would take into their annual political discussions around the family table over the Christmas holidays. This is where they decided that Boisclair didn’t have it. The feedback was devastating. One PQ MNA, back from tending the trapline in his riding over the holidays, was report- ed by Denis Lessard of La Presse to have said that he couldn’t find anyone with a good word to say about Boisclair.
In January, Boisclair went into a free fall from which he would never recover, a death spin that saw PQ poll numbers plunge from the mid-30s to the high 20s, a level the PQ hadn’t seen since 1970 and their first election under René Lévesque.
In Paris in mid-January, after a brief meeting with Boisclair, Ségolé€ne Royal, the Socialist Party’s candidate for the French presidency, blurted out her sup- port for Quebec sovereignty, breaking decades of a French orthodoxy of ”œnon- interference and non-indifference” on the Quebec question. While Boisclair feebly maintained that her position was perfectly supportable, with Gilles Duceppe riding to his rescue with a reminder that Bill Clinton had supported federalism, Charest jumped all over her comment, saying ”œthe future of Quebec will be settled in Quebec, by Quebecers.” Period. If there’s one thing Quebecers dislike more than being told what to do by the English, it’s being told what to do by the French.
Boisclair arrived back in Montreal to find a putsch underway, with former PQ leader Bernard Landry openly expressing his disgust over the Brokeback Mountain video, and allowing that he was still aÌ€ la réserve de la république, from his Colombey-les-deux-EÌglises on the banks of the Richelieu River. Then Boisclair let slip that he didn’t have much time for trade union leaders, a core PQ con- stituency. Finally, he stubbed his toe in the reasonable accommodation debate, saying he favoured the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly, where it had hung since 1936.
Meanwhile, Charest was spending the last week of January hob- nobbing with the likes of Bill Gates, Tony Blair and other global leaders at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This year’s theme was climate change, on which Quebec had a good story to tell in terms of green hydro-electric energy. And while Boisclair had a photo op with Royal, Charest flew back from Montreal to Paris in the first week of February for another conference on cli- mate change hosted by French President Jacques Chirac, who in 2003 had vaca- tioned on the shores of Lake Massawippi in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Charest has had a summer home for more than 20 years. Asked if he had a position in the French presidential elec- tion, Charest quipped: ”œNon-interfer- ence and non-indifference.”
By then, Charest had already made the decision to move his election call up from April to February and the vote from mid-May to March 26. This meant, in the pre-writ period, he had to move around furniture, some of it with the help of his friend Stephen Harper. In Sherbrooke on February 6, Harper announced $350 million for Quebec as its share of the new $1.5 billion Eco Trust Fund, which was even more than the $328 million Quebec had been seeking to help meet its emissions reduction tar- gets under the Kyoto Accord. ”œIt’s adjust- ed for inflation,” Charest said. A Liberal national council meeting, scheduled for Quebec City on March 24-25, was hur- riedly moved up to February 17. Where the Péquistes were previously known for doing son et lumié€re shows, the Liberals outdid themselves with a $100,000, one- day, made-for-television special featur- ing cabinet ministers walking around the stage with wireless mikes, 2,000 party activists decked out in Liberal red scarves, and Jean Charest surrounded on stage by 44 women candidates ”” a reminder that women, ”œthe Stéphanies” as the Liberals called them, were the key tar- get audience for the Liberals’ core message of continuty and stability.
And who were the Stéphanies? Working women, soccer moms and single moms. ”œWomen with responsibilities,” explained Liberal tour manager Jean Masson. ”œThey are looking for security. And they want peace. They don’t want a referendum.”
Three days later, on February 20, Charest recalled the legislature for a one-day session, where he announced a good news balanced budget that con- tained a modest $250 middle class tax cut. The next morning, Charest met the Lieutenant-Governor, got himself a writ and boarded his bus to start a 33-day campaign.
The Liberal campaign bus bore decals with Charest’s picture and the party’s slogan Unis pour Réussir, United for Success. It was a good slogan for Charest as a rassembleur, a sitting premier who brings people together, but it would be nearly a month before Charest finally addressed the Liberal unity theme in the last week of the campaign.
Almost from the beginning, Charest lost control of the agenda to the travelling media circus, and he never succeeded in imposing message discipline, on himself or the press corps, until the final week of the campaign. At the end of the first week, he misspoke when he said that any transfers from Ottawa to redress the fiscal imbalance would only flow to a federalist government in Quebec. In the predictable outraged indignation that ensued, it took Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to put out this fire when he unequivocally stated that Quebec would receive everything due to it in the March 19 budget, irrespective of which party formed the next government.
Next, beginning on March 6, Charest was faced with a media-made storm over whether Quebec could be par- titioned if it left Canada. This was Charest’s Groundhog Day moment ”” he kept waking up and the same story fol- lowed him around for three entire days. It was a story recycled from the period of bitter recriminations following the 1995 referendum, namely, that if Canada was divisible, so was Quebec. Reporter Elizabeth Thompson of The Gazette unearthed a 1996 quote from Charest, then leader of the two-member Progressive Conservative caucus in Ottawa, echoing Aboriginal leaders’ claim on the right of First Nations to leave Quebec in the event of Quebec’s independence. Charest at first echoed his comments of more than a decade earlier, except that as premier of Quebec, one of his first responsibilities was to affirm its territorial integrity, and thus its indivisi- bility. Within minutes, his comment that he refused to affirm the indivisibility of Quebec made it to the all-news network crawls. Three hours later, Charest’s office issued a ”œcorrection,” saying that he had meant to say Quebec was indivisible but that certain groups might claim it wasn’t, and here he was merely covering his Aboriginal flank.
While the Liberal war room knocked the story down within the same news cycle, the damage was done. Boisclair and Dumont jumped all over Charest for the next two days, claiming he was derelict in his duty as premier and defender of Quebec’s inter- ests. The incident not only allowed Boisclair and Dumont to claim the nationalist high ground, it stirred the dormant passions of the PQ base. Moreover, the very word ”œpartition” evoked memories of an ugly and divisive debate, of how things might have spun out of control if the ”œYes” side had nar- rowly won, rather than narrowly lost, the 1995 referendum, and moved to a unilat- eral declaration of independence, as Jacques Parizeau had planned. As long as the framing of the issue was about anoth- er referendum, Charest and the Liberals won. The moment it became about partition, Boisclair and the PQ won.
The incident also illustrated the Charest campaign’s inability, for the first four weeks of the campaign, to manage its own press bus. For the first three weeks, Charest’s daily news conferences would go on for nearly an hour, usually having little if anything to do with the process announcement or message of the day. Rather than being allowed one question and a follow-up, reporters were permitted to stand at the microphone asking up to five questions on as many different subjects, first in French, then in English. The partition question, on which Charest tripped over his tongue, was the very last one in a press confer- ence he and his staff allowed to run on way too long. It was eerily similar to Stephen Harper, in the last question of a daily news conference at Lévis, in the last week of the federal campaign, assur- ing Canadians they had nothing to fear from a majority Conservative govern- ment, because the public service and the bench were all Liberal appointees. Like Harper, Charest paid for it in three lost days on the campaign trail.
All three leaders’ camps would com- plain, and with reason, about the unruly and disrespectful behaviour on their media buses, particularly among the print prima donnas from the National Assembly Press Gallery, who set out to turn nearly every news conference into a drive-by shooting. Journalism is the only profession in which anti-social behaviour is not only tolerated, but encouraged as a badge of honour. In the 2007 Quebec campaign, the press sank to a new low of ”œgotcha” journalism.
The behaviour of some reporters on the Charest bus was particularly unprofes- sional. Early in the campaign, a French- language print reporter told Charest’s press secretary: ”œWe’re going to derail your campaign.” Another French-lan- guage radio reporter, who was openly hostile to Charest at his news confer- ences, wished the Premier ”œa happy retirement” as he walked to the podium of the Chambre de Commerce in Quebec to deliver an important speech in the last week of the campaign.
During the entire campaign, there wasn’t a single important issue illuminated as to the stand of one leader or party, or differentiated as to the position of all three, by the work of the travelling press corps. For this lamentable state of affairs, the media and the parties were equally to blame. At their daily televised press briefings, each party was put on the defen- sive because of the rapid response attacks of the others e-mailed to reporters on their BlackBerries. Reporters on each leader’s tour constantly compared notes with colleagues on the others. The result was the most content-free campaign in modern times.
When it came to con- fronting the leaders with pertinent, pointed, but polite questions, the media could have taken a lesson from Madame, monsieur, poser votre question, a town hall of ordinary voters selected by the TVA network for 90-minute Q&As with the three leaders. Even Tout le monde en parle, the wildly popular and cheekily irreverent Radio-Canada Sunday night talk show, elicited much more informa- tion from the leaders during their appear- ances than reporters did during the daily ordeals of their own news conferences.
More’s the pity, because campaign 2007 proved to be a watershed elec- tion, with the beginning of an historic realignment. This was because of the collapse of the PQ vote and, as a corol- lary, the surge of support for Mario Dumont, first at the expense of the Péquistes as his poll numbers moved from the mid-teens into the low 20s in the early days of the campaign, then at the expense of the Liberals as he moved to 30 percent after the leaders’ debate.
Who is Mario Dumont and why, in a winter of discontent, were Quebecers moving to him in such num- bers? He began the campaign with name recognition ”” at the tender age of 36, he was entering his fourth Quebec campaign. Actually, his fifth, counting the 1995 referendum, when he had sup- ported the ”œYes” side, though he subse- quently called for a 10-year moratorium on future referendums. So he had cre- dentials with PQ voters on the national question, and with the 60 percent of Quebec voters who didn’t want another referendum anytime soon.
Then, even before the campaign began, Dumont tapped into a deep resentment against Montreal in the regions of Quebec. Just as there is Quebec and the Rest of Canada (ROC), so there is Montreal and the Rest of Quebec (ROQ). In the ROQ, also known as Québec profond, there’s a profound disconnect from Montreal. While these voters generally support the Quebec model in economic terms, particularly when it comes to government support- ing their regions, they are deeply con- servative on social issues. Discussing the unexpected twists and turns of the campaign 10 days before the election, former premier Lucien Bouchard sipped a cup of tea in his Montreal law office and succinctly summed up the situation as ”œthe revolt of the regions against Montreal.”
More aligned historically with the Union Nationale and even the Créditiste parties, Québec profond was co-opted by the PQ in the last decades of the 20th century. But in choosing Boisclair as their leader, the Péquistes alienated this clientele, who weren’t particularly enam- oured of voting for a gay leader, particularly one with a history of drug abuse, not while in college, but while in the cabinet. That was the first break for Dumont, whose support had been lan- guishing in the low teens since the 2003 election, but began to move up slowly to the high teens by the end of 2006, as Boisclair’s liabilities became increasingly clear with the approach of the campaign.
Then Dumont had the good fortune to be the natural benefi- cary of, and the tactical sense to exploit, the debate on reasonable accom- modation of religious minorities, les accommodements raisonnables. This exploded into the headlines over a small town called Hérouxville, which adopted a bylaw that their municipality would, in the case of Muslim women convicted of certain crimes, not stone them to death. In the two months from the Christmas holidays to the dropping of the election writ, this was the hot-button issue in Quebec politics.
Charest took the issue off the table, and presumably off the ballot, in the days before the election call, when he named the eminent historian Gérard Bouchard, Lucien’s brother, and the renowned McGill philosopher Charles Taylor, as co-chairs of a provincial com- mission of inquiry on reasonable accommodation, due to report in 2008.
But even then, the issue of the limits of religious and cultural tolerance simply would not go away. First, an Ottawa girl was told by a referee that she couldn’t wear a hijab, a Muslim head scarf, at a children’s soccer tourna- ment in Laval. Five visiting Ontario teams withdrew from the tournament in protest. All three party leaders were called upon to comment, and Dumont was only too happy to do so, while Charest said officials should be guided by the rules of the game. The world’s governing soccer body, FIFA, was ambivalent on the matter. March is maple syrup season in Quebec, with pancakes, pork and beans offered to customers at cabanes aÌ€ sucres across the province. Another talk radio incident erupted over pork not being served to a group of Muslim customers, and an adjoining dance hall being cleared as a prayer room for them, a seemingly sen- sitive gesture toward customers who offer prayers five times a day. Then an old controversy was re-visited in Montreal’s polyglot Park Extension dis- trict, when the members of the local YMCA demanded it remove frosted windows it had installed in its gym to avoid offending worshippers at a Hasidic synagogue across the street. And in the final week of the campaign, a firestorm erupted when Quebec’s director-general of elections, Marcel Blanchet, initially ruled that Muslim women could wear burkas, completely covering their faces, or niqabs, veils that could be lifted, into the polling booth without showing their faces to election scrutineers. Such was the immediate outcry that the DGE, who had received personal threats, reversed his position within 24 hours. All three parties sup- ported, and pressed for, the reversal.
By the time of the leaders’ debate on March 13, Charest’s campaign was clearly losing altitude, while Boisclair was still on the runway and Dumont was taking wing. Halfway through the two-hour trial by television, Dumont, as Charest put it, ”œpulled a rabbit out of the hat,” when he brandished a 2004 Quebec Department of Transport memo that he said proved the Charest government ignored warning signs that foretold last September’s tragic collapse of an Autotoute 19 overpass north of the Concorde Bridge to Montreal. Except that the memo, on examina- tion, recommended no action to the government, the Transport Minister never saw it, and it never went to cabi- net or to the Premier’s Office. Thus, it never became a cabinet document, and Charest never saw it. Nevertheless, it became the coup de théatre of the debate, and propelled Dumont’s momentum in the campaign. It didn’t much matter that Boisclair had easily surpassed low expectations ”” more than merely sur- viving, he easily bested Dumont in a one-on-one confrontation where Dumont could not define what he had called the ”œmargin of manoeuvre” in Quebec’s fiscal framework.
As for Charest, who had been sleep- walking through the debate until Dumont woke him up, he rallied to win the last innings. A post-debate Internet poll of 1,300 Quebecers by Léger Marketing found that 32 percent judged Charest the winner, as against 31 per- cent for Boisclair and 28 percent for Dumont ”” a statistical dead heat. There was no knockout and no clear winner.
Nevertheless, a Léger poll three days later on March 16 confirmed the trendline for the three parties. The Liberals were at 33 percent (down four points from the first weekend of the campaign), while the PQ and ADQ were tied at 30 percent (up two and six points, respectively). Within the mar- gin of error, anything could happen and anyone could win. The problem for the Liberals was that their 33 per- cent included their huge ”œwasted” majorities among anglophone and allophone voters in Montreal, particu- larly the West Island, and they had fall- en to third place among francophones, 85 percent of the Quebec electorate.
The Liberal campaign had been designed for a two-man race between Charest and Boisclair. No one had counted on the PQ falling so far, so fast, and on Dumont presenting him- self as a serious alternative to voters who couldn’t vote for Boisclair and wouldn’t vote for Charest.
Neither had anyone counted on Charest, the most gifted campaigner of his generation, failing to show up for the first four weeks of the campaign. His retail appearances were listless, his speeches generally flat, and his press conferences unfocused and uncon- trolled. A campaign that was his for the losing looked as if he could well lose it. No one, not even his closest friends and associates, could figure out what was wrong with him. They all kept ask- ing when the real Jean Charest would turn up. The answer was, as it turned out, not a moment too soon.
After three bad weeks in a row going into the last week of the campaign, Charest needed a strong fin- ish to salvage at least a minority gov- ernment, if not retaining a majority.
He needed, and got, a relatively clean week. He needed to win several days a row, and he did, starting in the place he might have been least expected to win ”” a half-hour appearance on March 18 on Tout le monde en parle, which attracts some two million viewers ”” about a 70 percent share of the prime time audience, or nearly 40 percent of all the voters in Quebec. It is a place that is notoriously dangerous for the health of politicians. Michael Ignatieff’s leadership ambitions came a cropper there last Thanksgiving, when he announced that war crimes were committed by the Israelis in the bombing of a southern Lebanese town during last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Dumont was taken down a peg when host Guy A. Lepage and his sidekick, Dany Turcotte, rolled out a blackboard with detailed costs of the promises of the Liberals and the PQ and a blank slate beside the ADQ. Dumont was unable to fill in the num- bers, and then got completely blindsided when he stayed on for an appearance by journalist Chantal Hébert who, while promoting her book, also told Dumont to his face that he had no team and was- n’t ready to be premier of Quebec.
Charest withstood a barrage of questions about broken promises and failed programs with a self-deprecating sense of humour. The signature of Tout le monde en parle is usually a piece writ- ten by Turcotte and read by the guest. For Charest, it was a generous piece of verse, followed by a bear hug between the premier and Turcotte, who had been ”œouted” by Boisclair during a pre- vious visit to the show last year.
The next day, March 19, brought the federal budget, with its redress of the fiscal balance and $2.3 billion of additional federal funding in transfer payments and increases for Quebec, under both the old equalization for- mula ($1 billion) and the new one ($700 million). Then on March 20, Charest raised eyebrows in Quebec, and sparked a backlash in the Rest of Canada, when he announced at the Chambre de Commerce in Montreal that the entire $700 million in new equalization transfers would be given to Quebecers in a middle-class tax cut. Combined with the $250 million tax cut in his February budget, this made $950 million, or $750 for the average family. It seemed like a perversion of the spirit of equalization, which is about assuring comparable services, not comparable fiscal frameworks, across the Canadian federation.
The Rest of Canada complained on talk radio. The political class, both in Quebec and Ottawa, com- plained that Charest was cynically exploiting Ottawa’s generosity for short-term political gain. It remained to be seen what the voting class thought of it. As of election day the jury was out, though a good case could well be made that not only can you bribe the taxpayers with their own money, you can bribe them even more easily with other peo- ples’ money. Whatever, Charest trumped both Boisclair and Dumont on what they would do with the money, which was quite logically invest it in new services rather than returning it to the voters.
Charest was playing to big crowds, 1,500 at the Montreal Chambre de Commerce and 1,200 the next day in Quebec City. The Quebec Chambre de Commerce presented a statistical contrast between the Liberal ground game and Dumont’s lack of one. In a city where he would lose six seats and retain only two, Charest turned out a record crowd. Dumont, poised to sweep the provincial capital, had sold only 100 tickets and his organization had to paper the house by purchasing 200 more which, in the end, only proves that a ground game cannot stop a wave. Dumont virtually swept Quebec City.
On the final Wednesday, Stephen Harper told the House of Commons in Question Period that he would only negotiate limitations to the federal spending power, as promised in the budget, with a federalist government in Quebec City. While this was a state- ment of the politically obvious, Boisclair and Gilles Duceppe, in another attempt to motivate their base, torqued it into Harper trying to choose the premier of Quebec. Charest and Dumont were forced to step up as defenders of Quebec’s interests, saying Quebecers alone would choose their next govern- ment. Harper, in Montreal for a major environmental speech on the Thursday before the election, was whisked in and out of Montreal’s Palais des congrés through an underground garage, made his speech and left town without ever having to clarify his comments of the previous day. Also on the final Thursday, Charest picked up an important editori- al endorsement from André Pratte of La Presse, whose headline called ”œPour un gouvernement libéral majoritaire,” exactly the message the Liberals would try to drive home to close the deal on the final weekend of the campaign.
After three lousy weeks in a row, the Liberals’ support was finally growing again in the closing week, to a degree that wouldn’t be measured by the polls until the last weekend.
It was late afternoon on March 23 when Raymond Boucher received word at Liberal headquarters of the CROP and Léger Marketing polls that would appear in the big Saturday papers, driv- ing the coverage of the final weekend.
In both polls, the Liberals had regained a six-point lead. The CROP poll, for La Presse and Le Soleil, gave the Liberals a 34-28 lead over the PQ, with the ADQ at 25 percent. The Léger poll, for Le Journal de Montréal, The Gazette and the TVA network, gave the Liberals a 35-29 lead over the PQ, with the ADQ at 26 percent.
”œCharest is going to be premier on Monday night,” Boucher said emphat- ically, ”œthe only question left is whether it’s a majority or a minority.”
Throughout the campaign, the Liberals’ internal polls closely tracked Léger Marketing’s reading of decided voters. Where they diverged slightly was on the redistribution of the unde- cideds and ”œdiscreets” ”” those who wouldn’t say. Léger, at least initially, gave each party one-third of those votes. By the end of the campaign, the Liberals had adjusted their redistribu- tion of undecideds to 50 percent for themselves, 20 percent for the PQ and 30 percent for the ADQ, in an attempt to factor in Dumont’s success in the campaign.
Given the Liberals’ surplus vote in non-francophone Montreal ridings, the conventional wisdom held that they needed to win the election by six points over the PQ to form a minority government and by at least eight points for a majority.
By the morning of election day, according to their own pollster, they appeared headed for the first minority government in modern Quebec histo- ry, and only the second since Confederation ”” in 1878-79. Polling through Sunday night, in the last image of the campaign, Décarie saw the Liberals at 35 percent, with the PQ and ADQ tied at 27 percent. The Liberals were two points light of where they needed to be in terms of the pop- ular vote, and they had slipped a cou- ple of points to third place among francophone voters in the final few days. For the Liberals, this was an omi- nous portent of things to come. Sure enough. The Liberals’ 33 percent of the popular vote to 31 percent for the ADQ and 28 percent for the PQ trans- lated into 48 seats for the Liberals, 41 seats for the ADQ and only 36 seats for the PQ, reduced to third place.
”œIt’s going to be a long night,” Boucher said. ”œThere are about 40 ridings that could decided by less than a thou- sand votes each. Anything can happen.”
Anything almost did.