Jean Charest's confused candidacy
The former Quebec premier panders to the Conservative base, but to what end?
A few dozen Red Tories in Calgary — likely all who exist — packed into Wild Rose Brewery on Thursday night to see Jean Charest kick off his Conservative leadership campaign.
Charest, the Liberal premier of Quebec from 2003-2012 and federal PC leader from 1993-98 before the party was subsumed by Reform, prattled on about his track record of winning elections in a very different political environment than the one that exists in the federal Conservatives today.
Sitting in the midst of it, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Who is this for?”
While there were about 50 people in attendance, I’d venture to guess 15 of them were with media, which really encapsulates the target audience for so-called moderate conservatives, who seem to exist mostly in the op-ed pages of newspapers, rather than as foot soldiers in the Conservative movement.
Obviously, the kickoff location of Calgary was selected to show the Conservative base that Charest, who touted his credentials as a “fiscal conservative,” means business. He gave a shout out to “Alberta’s favourite son, Stephen Harper” to applause, despite their acrimonious relationship when they were both in power. He said he’d build pipelines and freeze the carbon tax to more applause, despite having implemented a cap-and-trade system in his final year as Quebec premier.
Surrogates for hard-right frontrunner Pierre Poilievre has already went on the attack against Charest, calling him a “Conservative of convenience” for his previous party affiliations.
At what point after running away from his past positions does the primary distinction between Charest and Poilievre become one of tone rather than substance?
“The party needs to look at itself and ask itself, who is it that we represent, what is it that we represent? Today, with the obsessive identity politics, everything becomes hyphenated, between red and blue, socons and others, when in fact we are Conservatives and I am running as a Conservative [emphasis mine],” Charest said.
Bob Young, a long-time party member in attendance, told me this conciliatory message is the Conservatives’ path back to power, yearning for the days of Brian Mulroney’s mega-majority governments in 1984 and 1988, in which Charest served various cabinet portfolios. “We’ve become so polarized, we’ve become so tribalized that we need someone to give us that bigger vision of Canada that’s bigger than one or two issues,” he said. “Do you believe in this country or do you believe in your little fiefdom with two or three issues you feel passionate about?”
Charest “has a lot of work to do” to convince members this is the correct approach, Young conceded.
I asked Charest if the constituency that elected him premier of Quebec in 2003 exists in the federal Conservatives today.
Why not? There’s going to be a lot of [party] members in Quebec. There’s 78 ridings in Quebec, and if there’s a lesson we should draw from the last few years [it’s that] if we’re going to form a national government, everyone has to be at the table. Let me give you a clue — when we talk to those who are criticizing my campaign, just watch the Bloc. They’re going to rediscover my name. They’re not going to have the federal Liberals and there’s a reason for that, because Quebec needs to be at the table. There’s one thing that cures these perceptions of the West and the East — that the West is homogenous or a certain way — you put all these people in the same room as a national government — I know, I’ve been there — big things happen.
The only conclusion I could reach from this garbled reply is that Charest is running a vanity campaign to restore his former glory. This may play well in front of a particular audience, but that’s fundamentally different from the broader Conservative movement, for whom Charest is yesterday’s man.
In other news …
So many Canadians have gone to fight alongside Ukrainian forces against the Russian invasion that they’ve formed their own battalion, according to a confidential source from the International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine, who said there are 550 Canadian fighters in the country.
Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a former Toronto-area Liberal MP and Ukrainian-Canadian activist, said as many as 1,000 Canadians have applied to serve in Ukraine, many of whom are ex-military.
While Canadians are supposed to apply through official channels, many are just “picking up and going” to Ukraine through Poland, Wrzesnewskyj added. What could go wrong?
Defence Minister Anita Anand said the Canadian government’s recommendation is still for Canadians who are in Ukraine to leave.
Edited by Scott Schmidt
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