08/01/2012 12:13 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Charest could join Robert Bourassa if he wins fourth electoral mandate

MONTREAL - As Jean Charest seeks his fourth mandate as premier, he may be thinking about Robert Bourassa, the last Quebec politician to pull that off in modern times.

"He crossed the desert and became premier of Quebec again," Charest observed in a speech honouring Bourassa at the launch earlier this year of a new biography on his owlish predecessor.

The political sands Charest faces as he seeks re-election on Sept. 4 would be familiar to those faced by Bourassa, who was premier in two stretches — 1970 to 1976 and 1985 to 1994.

It may also not be lost on Charest that when Bourassa staked his party and his leadership on the line in the 1976 election, which was fought to a large extent on corruption, he lost.

Charest has an inquiry into construction corruption hanging over his head as he heads into his fourth campaign. There's also the baggage of months of student strife over tuition fees, which has sparked nightly demonstrations, grabbed international headlines and been marked by vandalism and mass arrests during the spring.

Bourassa squared off with students too, in 1990, and successfully raised fees but did it after direct negotiations. One of the big knocks against Charest has been that he took too long to go to the bargaining table with the well-organized student leaders.

Bruce Hicks, a Concordia University political science professor, acknowledges some similarities between Charest and Bourassa but says they are mostly limited to a firm desire to hike fees.

"Bourassa was very sensitive to the students," Hicks said in an interview. He noted that universities and junior colleges have long been a recruitment ground for the sovereignty movement and many of the ideologies that drive nationalist politics in Quebec.

"I think Bourassa was much more sensitive to that than I think Charest is. I think Charest saw it as simply a matter of tuition fees and not in terms of how students network and how much solidarity there is among students in the province."

Bourassa's Liberal government increased tuition by $280 over four years, bringing it from $500 to $1,600. Charest originally wanted to boost fees by $325 per year over five years, to $3,800, although the details have since been adjusted.

If he had his druthers, however, Charest would likely be linked to another Bourassa-like achievement.

Bourassa's greatest achievement, kicked off in 1970 with the slogan "100,000 jobs," is considered the construction of the massive James Bay hydroelectric network that powers not only the province but its electricity exports.

As Charest heads into what many figure will be the twilight of his provincial political career, he's turned his sights to Quebec's remote region as well with a highly touted northern development plan that's supposed to create thousands of jobs.

Luc Turgeon, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, said Charest's northern plan reflects Bourassa's James Bay development.

"That is the biggest and most visionary element to his economic platform and . . . this in many ways is taken from Mr. Bourassa's playbook," he said in an interview.

While Charest moved to Quebec politics in 1998 in good part thanks to the urging of the federalist business community, his relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been as bumpy as the one between Bourassa and Pierre Trudeau.

With Bourassa, the issue was the Constitution. Charest and Harper have been at odds over the environment, gun control and criminal justice, among other things.

Charest had been a bright light in Brian Mulroney's federal cabinet and a passionate federalist orator during the 1995 Quebec referendum. He was expected to be a firebrand as provincial Liberal leader when he jumped from a brief stint leading a decimated Tory party to Quebec politics in 1998.

He was not universally hailed when he came to Quebec and some commentators wondered if he was little more than talk.

"Does he really have ideas?" former Parti Quebecois premier Jacques Parizeau blustered. "Everybody agrees that his hair is naturally curly but does he think?"

Lucien Bouchard denied him the premier's chair in his first try in 1998. But Charest was able to down Bernard Landry in a second bid in 2003, staving off grumbling by some in the Liberal ranks that maybe they'd backed the wrong horse.

He made it back into office two more times, giving him more consecutive election victories than any Quebec premier in the last half-century.

Like Bourassa, Charest has been attuned to public opinion during his adminstration — but has been criticized for an arguably lacklustre record of achievement.

For example, after an outcry about reasonable accommodation of immigrants, he ordered public hearings but mainly shelved their recommendations. As for the corruption inquiry, he called it but gave it little teeth, only sharpening them after public criticism.

"Bourassa was equally someone who was very sensitive to public opinion," Hicks said.

"That's why Bourassa was such a contrast to Rene Levesque because Bourassa was not someone who was driven by an ideology or set of beliefs. To him, economics was very important."

However, he added Bourassa's interest in economics sets him apart from Charest, who is friendly to business and conservative in his fiscal beliefs but not really driven by a set of economic priorities.

Turgeon said Charest had some luck in his management of the economy since he had already announced massive infrastructure development as the recession kicked in.

But he also pointed out that Charest leaves much of the day-to-day operations to cabinet ministers like Finance Minister Raymond Bachand.

"He's not someone who's especially interested in policy questions," Turgeon said of Charest, pointing to the student dispute. "He's not someone who's very hands-on with these affairs."

He said that's one respect in which Charest differs from some of his counterparts, such as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

"There's a number of policies of the Ontario government that you can directly relate to Mr. McGuinty or his influence. This wouldn't be the case for Mr. Charest, besides the Plan Nord now."

Charest will undoubtedly trumpet his economic record as he heads into the current campaign but reviews from analysts suggest his case is far from a slam-dunk.

Quebec's unemployment rate has gone down in the nine years Charest has been in power.

At 7.8 per cent, unemployment is lower than the 9.2 per cent the year he took office and is now nearly at the same level as the national average.

Other statistics aren't quite so positive.

Quebec's gross debt has gone from $133 billion — which is 53.5 per cent of the GDP — in 2003 to $184 billion in 2012. The current amount is 55.5 per cent of the GDP, easily highest among all the provinces.

The government is on track to balance its books in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Charest did promise to lower personal-income taxes in 2003, and he has, but he has also increased the provincial sales tax and fees for government services.

Hicks isn't quick to write Charest off in an election, pointing out he only needs 30 to 40 per cent of the vote to squeak out a win in a three-way race.

"It's a challenge when you've got two major social disruptions — one is the commission of inquiry into corruption in the construction industry and the other is the student protests — but anything can happen," Hicks concluded.