Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Premier Charest's Brilliant Chess Game

To read Gazette columnist, Josee Legault and Don MacPherson or Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert, you'd think Quebec Premier Charest is a bumbling idiot, bouncing from one disaster to another.

Yet the Premier's seemingly erratic behavior can be explained easily enough, if one considers that he is just following the political rule, that says;
It's preferable to be in power with a unpopular majority, than to be popular, but sitting in opposition.
Support for the Charest government may have plummeted to 38% from a high of 67% last October, yet the Liberals remain securely in power with a majority government and a mandate to rule for many years to come. F0r Mr. Charest and his party, it's represents the very best option, considering the alternatives.

The Premier may seem to be careening badly, but is actually managing his current political situation, quite brilliantly.

If the Liberals are unpopular, it is because they should be. Given the incredible disaster at the Caisse de Depot et placement (CDPQ) and the current economic outlook, no government should have expected to be returned to power, yet Mr. Charest and his government did survive, by holding an election before the true depth of the crisis became known.
It was a cynical and an unethical, but honesty has never been a political requirement or a formula for success.

The Premier had a simple choice. Hide the truth and roll the dice with an election or lose power when news of the debacle at the CDPQ surfaced. He did what he had to do.

Everything that's happening now, was clearly predictable to Mr. Charest back in October. He knew that he and his party would face a bleak and unpopular period when the truth came out, but if and when they were re-elected, he would just have to manage the situation.

Mr. Charest has been ahead of everyone. He has played out his crappy hand of cards masterfully, bluffing out the press, the electors and the opposition.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can understand Mr. Charest's plan to survive and can only marvel at his political acumen.

When Charest decide to go ahead with the election and brazen it out, he concocted a grand strategy of misdirection, smoke and mirrors.
He used a minor Parliamentary procedural row with the opposition, as the 'official' excuse for the election, knowing full well that the press wouldn't buy it. So he cleverly intimated that he had called the election simply because he was ahead in the polls and was making a opportunistic grab for a majority government. It was a cynical enough motive that the press fell for- hook, line and sinker. While the press may have believed that they were two steps ahead of the Premier in deconstructing his motives, it's now patently evident that the Premier was three steps ahead of them.

Everyone, but everyone, fell for the double and triple misdirection and missed the CDPQ story completely.

Even when Mario Dumont warned of the impending disaster during the election campaign, Charest deflected the accusation so deftly, that the press never really picked up on it.

Think back, to how calmly the Premier stonewalled the press with his deadpan and dismissive demeanour;
"Let's wait and see... Blah...blah...blah.
Caisse will report in the Spring....Blah...blah...blah....
No use in speculating.... Blah...blah
As calm as can be, Mr. Charest never lied, but never admitted to the truth. I don't think I'd like to play poker with him.

Amazingly, the secret held. Nobody who knew the truth broke ranks, not even at the CDPQ. Could the pressure to keep quiet be a contributing factor in the burnout and departure of the then president of the CDPQ, Richard Guay?

When the CDPQ finally admitted to the losses, in it's annual report, Mr. Charest skillfully tap danced around responsibility. He has steered the ruckus over the disaster at the CDPQ, away from any meaningful conclusion that would likely cause him grievous political harm.
First he refused to hold hearings into the matter, stalling for several weeks. Then he appeared to relent and change his mind. He agreed to hold hearings, but refused to appear before them.

There is a popular term for his actions, it's called 'Rope-a-dope', the classic boxing tactic of letting your opponent tire themselves out with useless body blows.

After the finance minister made a less than stellar appearance at those hearings, he nipped further debate off by presenting a newer controversy, the hiring of Michael Sabia, as the head of the CDPQ, that very same afternoon. The press and the opposition went scurrying off after the story, like a dog chasing a stick, thrown by his master.

Mr. Charest's actions weren't clumsy or amateurish. Everything was orchestrated to mitigate the inevitable harm that was to befall his government in the light of the revelations at the CDPQ. His goal, from the very beginning, was to steer the unavoidable runaway train of trouble, off the track.

Mr. Charest and his government are not in great shape, but they endure. They have the chance to redeem themselves over the next three and a half years. Unlikely as it is, in politics, stranger things have happened.
There is only so long the scandal can last, given the amateur opposition offered by the PQ and a less than ferocious press.
For Charest, it's a case of keeping his head down for another couple of weeks or months. If he sticks to his plan he'll likely succeed.

It was and continues to be, a text book case of political crisis management at it's best. It's likely that one day, political scientists will teach the 'Charest Gambit' in class, as an example of politics at it's best, or maybe, politics at it's very worst.

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