Better know your premiers

Better know your premiers
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Shootings aside, Tuesday’s Quebec election was a historic night for Canada for a number of perfectly innocuous reasons. For one, the defeat of incumbent Premier Jean Charest heralded the decisive end of a career that has loomed large Canadian politics, in some form or another, for nearly 30 years.

It wasn’t a particularly accomplished career, mind you. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about Charest is while he was always holding some important office or doing some important thing, his moderate temperament and unambitious ideas doomed him to the status of Canada’s longest-running background character. Always little more than the proverbial right man in the right place at the right time, it seemed somehow appropriate that his narrow Tuesday night defeat to Pauline Marois and the Parti Quebecois was almost equally inescapable and perfunctory.

Charest never held a career prior to politics, and first won election to the national parliament in 1984 at the tender age of 26 — at the time a historic low. Two years later, more headlines were made when Prime Minister Mulroney installed him as Canada’s youngest-ever cabinet minister, albeit in an infamously irrelevant spot.

His importance nevertheless skyrocketed overnight following the election of 1993, when he became one of only two Progressive Conservative MPs to keep their seats following the massive meltdown of the party under the disastrous reign of Kim Campbell. At age 34 he was thus forced by circumstance to accept the leadership of the Tories, the once unstoppable juggernaut of Canadian politics now languishing in fifth-place status.

Charest hadn’t been in politics long enough to have spent much time formulating a vision or ideology of his own, so it’s not really surprising that he proved incapable of bringing the PCs back from the brink. In 1997 he fought his first and only election for prime minister, in which his exceedingly moderate message of truly progressive conservatism was easily drowned out by the starker ideological choices of Jean Chretien’s Liberals and Preston Manning’s Reform — to say nothing of the fresh challenge poised by the Separatist Bloc Quebecois in his own Quebec riding.

The Tories’ seat count increased only modestly in ’97 — from two to 20 — and the party retained its fifth-place standing, Reform clearly the leading preference of centre-right voters at this point. A moderate at his core, Charest, for his part, refused to entertain any talk of a right-wing merger with Manning, ultimately surrendering the party leadership in 1998 to former prime minister Joe Clark, who would procede to delay the inevitable for another five years.

Charest’s greatest glories as PC leader ultimately had little to do with the either the party or conservatism itself. As the nation’s highest-profile Tory of French extraction, in 1995 he was recruited to serve as vice-chair of the multi-partisan campaign opposing the separation referendum of then-Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, a post Charest filled with such energy and passion no one even remembers who who the actual chair was. His brand rising in Quebec, ditching the PC’s in ’98 gave Charest a convenient excuse to switch parties and join the Quebec Liberals, a gang desperately looking for a dynamic leader at the time.

And here we are. Charest led the Liberals to one loss and three back-to-back victories, losing to Premier Parizeau’s successor, Lucien Bouchard, in 1998, before unseating his successor, Bernard Landry, in 2003.

As was the case with his leadership of the PC’s, Charest’s tenure as premier was never distracted by pesky things like vision — his government was defined first and foremost by simply being non-separatist after a decade of separatist rule. Unlike some of his Liberal predecessors, he likewise remained disinterested in renegotiating the terms of the Canadian federal system in order to generate a “better deal” for Quebec’s unique ambitions; it’s been said that “Charest federalism” simply entailed teaching Quebeckers to put up with the status quo. His recent defeat, likewise, was widely interpreted as a public rejection of his record on domestic, internal issues — worsening debtstudent unrestcorruption, and so forth — rather than a true renaissance of nationalism.

Was Charest a statesman? I’m inclined to say no, and view the man as mostly overrated. Those who praise him offer compliments mostly for the things he didn’t do — he didn’t promote independence, he didn’t draw the country into a prolonged constitutional crisis, he didn’t ruin the Quebec economy completely. He did undoubtedly deserve a more dignified exit than the one he got, however, which makes me think the departing premier is actually a fairly good case study in the debate over term limits.

In Quebec, every premier of recent decades has left office either as a loser or quitter, simply because the province’s combination of parliamentary governance and unscheduled elections offers no opportunity for a third option — neutral retirement.

Premiers Rene Levesque (1976-1985), Robert Bourassa (1985-1994), Jacques Parizeau (1994-1996), and Lucien Bouchard (1996-2001) all resigned in office, and though all claimed they were doing so simply because it was “time to move on,” the press was near-unanimous in suspecting unstated agendas of one form or another. These guys knew they weren’t gonna win another election, they said. Or internal dissent within their parties was becoming too strong. Or their tenure had become such an embarrassment pulling the trigger was the only option.

In any case, resignations meant someone else had to be premier, and three of the four great Quebec losers of modern times — premiers Pierre-Marc Johnson (1985), Daniel Johnson, Jr. (1994), and Bernard Landry (2001-2003) were all men who inherited office for a few sad months before proceeding to be soundly turfed at the polls. They too were victims of a sort; unelected and unwanted, with pointlessly short tenures that made a mockery of the importance and dignity of their position.

A system without term limits or set elections inevitably casts every politician as a fundamentally unattractive, perpetually ambitious, wannabe-tyrant whose lust for power will only ever be curbed by revolt or cowardice. It encourages men, like Charest, to hang around much longer than they should, since any style of exit from office will only yield suspicion, negative headlines and a tainted legacy.

On September 4, Jean Charest was defeated by separatists, a political movement he’s spent the majority of his adult life fighting. But he was also defeated by a system that made a loser out of someone who deserved  at least slightly better.


  1. Taylor

    Actually, Charest's 1997 campaign was fairly right wing economically, almost moreso than Reform on some items.

    Clark was the one who moved to the mushier politics.

  2. Taylor

    His opposition to a merger was more on the Quebec issue rather than economics, also.

  3. J.J. McCullough

    Being "fairly" and "almost" are kind of the very definitions of moderation, are they not?

  4. Taylor

    I meant in the sense they were between the Liberals (who at that point were at least fiscally centre, if not centre-right) and Reform on the rigid right. It was far more neo-liberal than previous PC platforms.

    Socially, though, centre. Really liked his idea of renegotiating Federal/provincial boundaries.

  5. Ian

    A few corrections:
    – Charest was prominent even before the election that eviscerated the rest of his party. He was the major challenger to Kim Campbell in the leadership race and came in second in the leadership convention
    – The election that eviscerated the PCs was in 1993, not 1992
    – The Quebec referendum was in 1995, not 1996
    – Distinctly remember Charest resisting attempts to draft him into the Quebec Liberal Party following Daniel Johnson's resignation as leader. It took a couple of weeks and a national cajoling ("to go do battle with the seperatists") for him to take the job.

  6. Bravado

    Jean Lesage always seemed like the only respectable exception to the rule in Quebec…

  7. Taylor

    He was more a figurehead. His Ministers spearheaded all of the reforms, Lesage himself faded into alcoholism.

    Really, quite a few of the men J.J. lumps into buckets had very respectable careers.

  8. J.J. McCullough

    They had successful careers, I'm not sure if that's the same as respectable.

  9. Taylor

    Daniel Johnson Sr. was both successful and respectable, he could be said to have consolidated the Quiet Revolution and added some intellectual heft into the position.

    Bourassa being respectable depends on your read of his career. Successful in his hardline nationalist/federalist stance, almost to the point of changing the relationship between Quebec and Canada to his ideal, despite pressure on both sides? Or moderate who changed his colours repeatedly to appease everyone and survive? I tend to favour the former, but can clearly see the latter view.

    Levesque had a quick and brutal fall, but in retrospect seems to have the grudging respect of many of his former enemies.

  10. Taylor

    Meant to add with Johnson, he probably did more in 2 years than a lot of Premiers in 8, especially in the Fed-provincial sphere.

  11. Yannick

    It's not like his party was entirely wiped out in the election – by all metrics he should have lost this one handily, and he only came in 4 seats behind the PQ! A difference of two seats, and it would have been an equality!

    Pauline Marois "won" this election with 31% of the vote, losing 4% since her total defeat in 2008. This is in no way a resounding victory for seperatists.

    Pauline's victory has less to do with her and Charest's character and much more to do with the upset CAQ new party led by Legault which managed to win an astonishing 27% of the vote – 31, 30 and 27% each, if that's not this country's closest three way race, I don't know what is.

  12. Cicero

    The problem with the buckets, in some way, is that as a rule a person either decides to retire (i.e. "quitters") or gets retired (i.e. "losers").

    Not that Charest was much of a statesman…look at the mushy waffling on the students and the Law 78 (I think that was the number, at least). There is such a thing as a "principled moderate", but that usually involves having principles that just don't line up in a clean partisan manner (which, in the rather non-ideological morass of Canadian politics, gets kind of hard to manage at times).

  13. Ann Apolis

    Well quite. "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." (Enoch Powell) So all the fact the bucket on the right is empty tells us is that the death rate for Quebeci premiers is quite low!

    (In this comment: Ann Apolis quotes Enoch Powell approvingly.)

  14. Cicero

    True…there are very few politicians who will genuinely, upon getting into a powerful position, seek to retire from it of their own free will. I can think of a few (Over in the UK, Harold Wilson seemed to do this when he retired in the late 70s…there's some disputing, but apparently he was genuinely exhausted; Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan were in similar situations as well), but they tend to be the extreme exception unless they come into office at a relatively advanced age. Probably the three best examples of successful careers not ending in a collapse were Éamon de Valera (Ireland) Robert Meinzes (Australia) and Konrad Adenauer (Germany); the latter did get hustled off, but in that case advanced age was a large part of the reason (he was about 90 when he retired). Advanced age was also a large part of why de Valera eventually got hustled off to act as President of Ireland (he was 76 when he became President, and he left office at 90 due to term limits…but at that point he had been in and out of high office for nearly 40 years when he became President). Again, though, these tend to be rather rare when term limits aren't involved.

  15. Yannick

    Frank McKenna left after 10 years of service as Premier of New-Brunswick, to the day, to fulfill an electoral promise. That's what you call integrity.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Then again most are never able to even remain in office for that long in a democracy. George Washington pretty much agreed he would only stay 2 terms no matter what before hand. But to be honest I wonder if he would of even got reelected, he might of just because he was GW. Eisenhower would of won reelection but was term limited. Most are either old or knew they wouldn't win reelection are just aren't able to run again. Calvin Coolidge was a good example. He was popular but then again he just hated being President.

    Which makes me wonder. Do most good politicians try to keep going just because they feel they can continue to do good, that are waiting for a worthy successor. Thus damn be their legacy they think and they stay in it until they can't anymore. Or they just love power so much and are so full of themselves they genuinely believe everyone else is too incompetent.

  17. Mark G

    This could have been about Australia – we have the exact same problem – & it's part of reason politicians have such low standing here (though pollies themselves bear the lions share of blame for that situation).

    Is the depiction of Robert Bourassa's nose meant to convey something specific? Or was his nose just frightening in general?

  18. Taylor

    Aside from his glasses, it was his most distinctive feature, that's for sure.

  19. Virgil

    So one has to go back to Daniel Johnson, Sr. to find a different fate (Union Nationale)?

  20. HMBC

    Shouldn't the comic caption say "Premiers of Quebec," not "Prime Ministers of Quebec"?

  21. @tominkorea

    Not necessarily. The proper French term is "Premier ministre du Québec" after all.

  22. Yannick

    The proper French term is Premier Ministre for ALL the provinces. "Premier" is an annoying word.

  23. HMBC

    True, but this comic is in English.

  24. @tominkorea

    Goodness gracious, J.J., Bourassa's nose wasn't that absurdly long. Hilarious though.