QUEBEC - Jean Charest left the Quebec legislature to begin his summer break Friday — and it remains to be seen whether he'll ever return as premier.
Charest said he expected the legislature to reconvene in September although he did not rule out calling an election beforehand, as some expect he might do despite his relatively weak position in the polls.
His end-of-session news conference offered some clues that the premier has his mind on things bigger than a summer holiday, following a raucous political season.
It was a season that began with talk about disharmony in the opposition ranks, and ended with images of disharmony in Quebec's streets that made news around the world and inspired a controversial legislative crackdown on illegal protest.
While Charest's opponents Friday castigated his government's performance since January, he kept speaking to reporters about a longer time horizon — stretching back to 2003, the year he was elected.
He talked about the considerable drop in unemployment over the Liberals' three terms. About a rise in household income, in the minimum wage and in mining royalties. He also noted that Quebec is slated to emerge from a deficit faster than the federal government.
He did not mention the provincial debt, which has increased nearly one-third since he took office. The debt has, however, held relatively steady as a proportion of GDP and is negligibly higher than the 53 per cent it was in 2003.
A leaked document suggests Charest intends to campaign on a relatively simple message: that he will focus on the economy, while his principal opponent will focus on pleasing client groups.
He noted that PQ Leader Pauline Marois has made two major promises to rally her base in recent months.
One is to allow California-style referendums by popular initiative — including on the Quebec independence issue — as part of her broader democratic-reform proposals that include fixed election dates and $100 political fundraising limits.
The other major Marois promise would undo the tuition hikes that have caused such social strife in recent months.
"She folded before the extreme left wing of her party and the extremists of the sovereignty movement," Charest told reporters.
Meanwhile, his opponents heaped the blame squarely on him for the season of student-led unrest that has made international news.
For the Parti Quebecois, it's Charest's fault because the premier treated the students shabbily. They blame him for waiting two months to meet with them, and for offering only miniscule concessions on his $254-a-year tuition hikes.
For Charest's opponents, his performance on the tuition file is all a cynical plot: to let the social unrest fester, and use the student movement as an electoral whipping boy. Polls suggest Quebecers generally support Charest's policy on tuition hikes, even if they don't like his government.
The PQ insists Charest could have had social peace months ago. And they say the election should be about other issues — including past Liberal ethics scandals — and not a one-issue campaign on the current burning topic of tuition.
"(Quebecers) must not let themselves be manipulated by (Charest)," Marois told reporters.
A recent byelection win by the PQ in a Liberal stronghold near Montreal, Argenteuil, suggests her Pequiste troops might have reason for optimism.
The PQ score nudged up ever so slightly in that vote last Monday. But the Liberal vote dropped significantly, and there is reason to believe many of those voters flocked to the third-place Coalition Avenir Quebec.
As a result, Charest avoided mentioning Francois Legault's CAQ on Friday. The non-federalist, non-separatist, economic centrist party is now seen as a potential spoiler for Charest in three-way races, given what happened in Argenteuil.
Legault has generally supported the premier's tuition policy — along with his emergency protest law. He says he's proud of the positions his party has taken in the tuition dispute.
The problem in the tuition fight, Legault said, is not the product. He said it's the salesman. The premier has lost the trust of Quebecers, Legault said.
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