Charest Resigns: Quebec Liberal Leader Quits After Losing His Seat

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Quebec Liberal Party leader Jean Charest leaves the polling station after casting his ballot in his riding in Sherbrooke, Que., Tuesday, September 4, 2012 as Quebecers vote in a provincial election .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Quebec Liberal Party leader Jean Charest leaves the polling station after casting his ballot in his riding in Sherbrooke, Que., Tuesday, September 4, 2012 as Quebecers vote in a provincial election .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest has announced his resignation, bringing a long, turbulent career as premier to a close.

"The decision was unanimous. I will leave my post as leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec in a few days, once a new government is formed," he said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

"As a father, who will soon be a grandfather, it's as if life was sending me a signal," he added. "From the bottom of my heart, I give a great thank-you to Quebecers. You have been marvelous."

In 2003, Charest ended nine years of Parti Quebecois rule to become premier, only to return it to the PQ in 2012 in a race that was closer than many pundits and pollsters expected.

The 54-year-old Sherbrooke native not only lost the September 4 election to Pauline Marois' resurgent PQ, but also his hometown seat to the party's Serge Cardin.

"I want to say to all of you tonight, and to all of you interested in the future of Quebec, that the result of this election campaign speaks to the fact that the future of Quebec lies within Canada," Charest would later tell a glum gathering at the party's Sherbrooke HQ, garnering, at least, the most spirited applause of the night.

As the Montreal Gazette reports, Charest's absence would give leadership hopefuls a healthy stretch to vie for the job he held down for the last nine years — and rebuild a fractured Liberal Party in Quebec.

SURVIVALIST

For Charest, it's an unfortunate endnote to a political biography that has spanned decades — and crossed party lines.

A practising lawyer in his hometown, Charest won the federal seat for Sherbrooke as a Progressive Conservative MP in 1984. The triumph led to a plum position as minister of state for youth in the Brian Mulroney government. At 28, that made him the youngest member of a federal cabinet ever.

When voters handed the PCs a near-extinction notice in the 1993 federal election, Charest was the party's last surviving cabinet member — making him a rather easy choice for interim party leader in 1995. Again, the unlikely lawyer from Sherbrooke made history as the party's first leader of Francophone descent — battered though it may have been at the time.

The PCs never recovered. Before Charest's career could, he would have to switch sides — a play he made in 1998, as a provincial Liberal. It wasn't until 2003, however, that he managed to wrest control of Quebec from the Parti Quebecois with a majority win.

FEDERALIST

Charest never let voters forget that he was an avowed federalist tilting at sovereigntist windmills.

“I am a federalist," he told a room-full of journalists as recently as August 31. "I am a Quebecer who believes in Canada I think that the interests of Quebec and the interests of Canada do not contradict each other."

While Charest rarely overwhelmed in the polls — and was frequently a target for Quebecers' frustrations — he did manage to earn still another distinction.

Along with Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, Charest was the longest actively serving Canadian premier.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that both premiers have been accused of overstaying their welcome.

The Toronto Sun went so far as to predict pre-election Charest looked to be going down "like a flaming sambuca."

"A back-from-the-grave Parti Québécois is only part of Charest’s problem; after nine years in power, he can’t outrun the desire for change that dogs all governments long in the tooth," wrote Greg Van Moorsel.

Then again, few premiers have ever had to endure the political travails Charest did.

AN UNENVIABLE POSITION

The health of Quebec's coffers proved one of Charest's earliest challenges as premier. He scrambled to find new sources of revenue — adding a gamut of fees to public services, hiking hydro rates and slapping businesses with a carbon tax.

And his position on the Kyoto Accord won him few friends in Ottawa. Charest was a vocal critic of the federal government's decision to pull out of the environmental pact.

It all added up to a deeply unpopular premier, still freshly into his term — and one dogged at every turn by the PQ's separatist ambitions.

THE GREAT UNIFIER?

In fact, The Globe and Mail recently paid homage to this 'national unity giant'.

"For 17 years, he has thwarted separatist ambitions," columnist Lawrence Martin wrote. "Although he never seems to get much credit, we owe him some."

In 2007, he campaigned hard on the promise of deep income tax cuts, a luxury partly afforded by increased equalization payments from Ottawa and higher tuition fees.

It was the latter, however, that would return to haunt him.

THE STUDENT STORM

Charest may have eked out a minority win in 2007, but Quebec students wouldn't soon forget.

In February this year, the student issue exploded after the Charest government tabled another tuition hike.

Some 165,000 students took to the streets in what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

It was a storm that few premiers could weather, much less one of the most unpopular premiers in Canadian history — and the protests quickly spun into a national discourse on civil liberty.

FLAG-BEARER FOR THE SAME OLD?

Of course, students alone didn't take down the surprisingly resilient premier. It was more like a combination of issues that had been simmering throughout his tenure.

Yahoo News writer Andy Radia breaks it down into three overarching factors:

Corruption, especially in the province's building industry, continued to sap away at Charest's image.

Also, Quebec's economy could hardly withstand the rigours of a worldwide slowdown —
a situation considerably exacerbated by the student strike.

And finally, Radia writes, there was that age-old dilemma faced by every long-standing political leader. How do you convince voters that you stand for change, when you've simply been standing around too long?

In any case, Charest's resignation doesn't necessarily signify the end of his political career. And, indeed, it would be hard to bet against a man who managed to tame the PQ in three straight elections.

“He’s young,” a Montreal Gazette source tells the newspaper. “He can do something else. Or he could come back into politics one day.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated Jean Charest won one majority government in Quebec. In fact, he won two; one in 2003 and the other in 2008.

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