"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!"
In 2008 Jean Charest called a snap election after just twenty months in office, much to the surprise of pundits and in fact his political opposition. The Liberal government was at risk, as are all minority governments, but clearly the CAQ and the PQ were of no mind to bring down the government and so Charest's motives were suspect.
"The pessimistic French expression plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose is very often cut down to just the first clause: plus ça change... / "the more things change..." The shortened French expression is often used in English too, particularly British English.
In either language, plus ça change indicates a certain disillusionment or resignation regarding whatever is being talked about. A company makes all kinds of policy changes, for example, but the personnel issues are unaffected. A couple go to marriage counseling, but continue fighting about everything. A new sheriff comes to town, but there is no noticeable impact on crime. New people, new promises, but the same old problems - plus ça change...." Link
But his sweeping victory leading to a majority government made those questions moot and Charest's keen political sense of timing was feted by friends and grudgingly admired by foes.
But the reality behind the election call was far more sinister than anyone would suspect. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec ( CDPQ,) the province's national pension plan fund had suffered a hitherto undisclosed financial meltdown, losing a fifth of its values in the Wall street collapse of 2008, having heavily invested in worthless sub-prime mortgages.
The $40 billion dollar loss was still secret in the Fall of 2008 and was scheduled to be revealed a few months later, in the Spring of 2009, when the fund would be required to deposit its annual report.
That revelation was bound to rock the province and would likely lead to the fall of the Liberal government, brought down by an emboldened opposition, with the Liberals likely to face the wrath of furious voters.
And so for Charest, calling the election early wasn't a case of brilliant insight, it was a case of now or never, a cynical decision to roll the dice while conditions were optimal.
Although Charest's gamble paid off, he was never forgiven by Quebecers for his dishonest failure to disclose and although he won a new term, the writing was on the wall for his political career.
As revelations and accusations of corruption emerged during that term, a cynical public chose to believe the worst and Charest's proclamations of innocence fell upon deaf ears.
In 2012, with over a year left on his mandate, Charest went back to his successful playbook, calling another early election, this time in the face of the upcoming Charbonneau Commission inquiry (looking into corruption in the construction industry) that he was forced to call because of mounting public pressure. Fearing that the revelations over the next year would so damage the party, Charest felt it precipitous to roll the dice again.
This time the public wasn't buying what he was selling.
Fool me once......
Pauline Marois and the PQ rode into power on a white horse, claiming an innocent reputation and promising an honest and corruption free government, something enough voters bought despite the independence baggage that the party lugged around like a ball and chain.
But the PQ was no different than the Liberals when it came to self-interest and set out to govern not for the benefit of the people, but rather with but one single and unique goal, to propel themselves into a majority government as soon as possible.
And so it would seem that in dumping Jean Charest and the Liberals in favour of Pauline Marois and the Parti Quebecois, Quebecers had in effect swapped four quarters for a Looney, with the added catch of a separatist agenda.
At first the PQ planned on the Charbonneau Commission doing the dirty work for it, that is, to destroy the credibility of the Liberal party, with revelations of corruption and malfeasance. But surprisingly, over the next months, the expected fallout over purported Liberal Party misdeeds just never materialized.
In fact the very opposite occurred with revelations at the inquiry impugning the honesty of Pauline's husband with allegations that he was paid off by Quebec's biggest union to influence her on its behalf.
This uncomfortable turn of events was exacerbated by a deteriorating financial situation, with the provincial deficit building higher and higher.
And so a desperate PQ decided to call an audible, launching the Charter of Values, the us versus them proposition limiting certain religious freedom of minorities in Quebec.The Charter of Values would divide Quebecers, forcing them to choose one camp or another, with the PQ hoping that the province's francophone majority, imbued with a collective persecution complex, would range on their side in enough numbers to carry an election based on the issue.
In the afterglow of some positive opinion poll numbers placing the PQ ahead of the Liberals and the seemingly majority support for the Charter, the PQ, like Charest, decided to roll the dice, calling a snap election, with no compelling reason, other than to secure a majority government.
It didn't quite work out, for reasons we all know.
The Liberal party artfully played up the referendum fear and the PQ swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker.
The rest is history, the PQ suffering a humiliating defeat and the reborn Liberals under Philippe Couillard marching back into office with a majority mandate.
But here is not where the story ends, it is where it begins, with revelations that the PQ lied about certain aspects of the Charter of Values and its contention that it was based on solid constitutional advice.
It turns out that the PQ never sought a solid legal opinion over the Charter's constitutionality from it's own Justice department, something that Bernard Drainville (the cabinet minister that godfathered the bill) and Marois hinted obliquely that they had.
Now defenders of the PQ tell us that the party did seek some informal opinions from an ex-Supreme Court justice and a constitutional professor, but the public wasn't buying the story with howls of rage and betrayal echoing across the media and accusations of dishonesty and outright lying leveled at the PQ across the board.
Lost in all this is how Philippe Couillard knew this truth. Let's go back a bit and refresh our memories over Couillard's announcement in the middle of the campaign that should he be elected, he would ask that any official legal opinions over the Charter be revealed. It turned out to be a brilliant political move.
The Liberal party must have received its own legal advice that overwhelmingly concluded that the proposed law was unconstitutional, meaning that there was no way that the PQ could have any legitimate legal opinion in hand backing the Charter, it just wasn't possible.
Caught in the lie, Pauline changed her tune in mid campaign, now advising us that she'd invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to force the Charter through in the face of a constitutional challenge, something which the justice minister Bernard St. Arnaud and Bernard Drainville, told us previously would be unnecessary.
In the aftermath of all this, it has become clear that the Charter was but a ploy, meant to be passed in an unconstitutional form with the expectation that the Supreme Court would disallow it, providing the PQ with ammunition to trigger a nasty philosophical dispute with Ottawa that would hopefully enrage Quebecers and launch the province towards sovereignty.
It was a Machiavellian plot that totally betrayed those loyalists in the media and the public who supported the Charter in good faith based on the PQ's assurance that the bill was a necessary element for Quebec society and the promise that the law would pass the constitutional test.
It was a particularly cruel trick, a deception not easily digested and for the PQ, being tossed out of office is only the beginning, with recriminations to hound the party for years, like the federal Liberals in relation to the Sponsorship Scandal.
As far as Pauline's reputation goes, it is in tatters and as for Bernard Drainville, who managed to survive the election debacle and retain his seat, it's a case of playing out the string, he is totally discredited and finished politically.
Asked to answer to the media for his acts of deception over the Charter, he has told reporters that he'll no longer answer questions over the issue, because he's no longer in charge of the file.
Try as he might to distance himself from the fiasco, he can run, but he cannot hide. Drainville's name shall forever be linked to the Charter and the stink of dirty politics.
His dream of winning the PQ leadership is also in ruins, his reputation destroyed for lying and crass manipulation of the Charter as an election ploy. His uncompromising attitude and hardline defense of the Charter seen by the PQ membership as a key element in their defeat.
All that said, Philippe Couillard has promised to do politics differently, but it remains to be seen if he is just paying lip service or is really committed to acting for the people in an honest and forthright manner instead of for himself and his political party as is the history of all Quebec provincial governments.
As for being afforded the benefit of the doubt by those who elected him and the Liberals, Couillard should count on none. Quebecers are fed up with betrayal and are no longer interested in assuming that their leaders are honest.
In the eyes of the public, he is guilty until proven innocent and that readers is probably a good thing.