Jean Charest Is the Centrist Candidate for the Conservative Leadership

Canada’s Conservatives will elect their new leader Saturday, September 10. The preferential voting procedures give equal weight to constituencies, except that those having fewer than 100 members will get less in proportion to the shortfall.

Membership signups are now closed, and the candidates will be seeking secondary support from those not already committed to them. Typically, it is those votes that make the difference in the final ballot.

Jean Charest is easily the oldest and most experienced of the six candidates. He was first elected as a member of parliament at the age of 26 in 1984, and was re-elected in 1988,1993, and 1997.

Switching to provincial politics he became party leader and was elected to office in 1998, then became premier when his party won elections in 2003, 2007, and 2008, but was defeated by Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois in 2012.

After a ten-year hiatus in the private sector, Charest has emerged as a serious candidate for the federal Conservatives. He views himself as liberal on social issues but fiscally conservative.

When asked about his best accomplishment, he said it was his fiscal management as Premier. He had a good record in his first five years in office, somewhat tarnished by the last four.

His policy positions are largely centrist. An overarching theme is for the federal government to support rather than constrain choices by individuals and other levels of government.

The framework calls for strict protection of critical infrastructure so Canadians can do their jobs. This would include pipelines, railways, border crossings and airports, but would also apply to some of the obstructive activities associated with the truckers convoy. Charest feels that they could have expressed their legitimate grievances without resorting to prolonged law-breaking. At the same time he feels that the invocation of the emergency act was a serious overreach.

Canada’s military spending has been an embarrassment. It takes an event like the invasion of Ukraine to realize that we are not doing our share. Under Charest, military spending would grow to NATO’s 2% of GDP threshold. He would implement processes to support a safe environment for women, minority, and LGBTQ2S+ military personnel.

Charest would keep the Liberal childcare program but would provide a tax credit alternative that could be better for some families with low incomes or only one employment income.

He supports high immigration targets provided that the arrivals can be successfully integrated. He believes that the federal government can make a useful contribution to evaluating credentials of foreign-trained professionals by creating a central register for federal jurisdiction employers, which the provinces could use at their discretion.

He will reduce federal restrictions on the ability of provinces to manage health care. Provinces will have unlimited access to immigration slots for qualified health care workers.

They will be free to use private providers of some surgeries and diagnostic procedures, as long as the public system is their only customer. This is not entirely new: privately owned Scotia Surgery, Shouldice Hospital, and the Cambie Surgery Centre already provide publicly funded services.

Charest is strongly supportive of resource industries including oil and gas. He would repeal bills C-48 and C-69, which prevent the transmission of oil and gas across Canada and to other countries.

He would keep the goals of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050. His plan, like Trudeau’s, is heavily dependant on carbon capture and carbon dioxide removal, which are unproven technologies. The government’s analysts say that the government will be unable to achieve what it projects for 2030.

Charest would cancel the carbon tax and focus on reductions from large industrial emitters. He also understands the need for nuclear energy, in addition to renewables, to replace fossil fuels.

To respond to the inflationary spike, he would reduce government spending and reduce taxes. He would not interfere with the Bank of Canada.

There are six candidates who want to lead the Conservatives.

Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison, and Roman Baber have not gained much traction, but they have played a useful role. Their tone is about respect and avoiding divisive politics.

In the English debate they provided an air of calm and thoughtful contribution. Aitchison in particular was glad to endorse one of the other contributions and to build on it. Patrick Brown’s candidacy is more combative, and also struggling.

Had it just been Pierre Poilievre, Patrick Brown, and Charest it would have been a donnybrook.

Charest is a mainstream candidate. He is comfortable in his own skin and unlikely to be discomfited by Trudeau’s wedge tactics. If he is selected many of the hard right Conservatives may continue to support Max (aka Mad Max) Bernier’s people’s Party of Canada. This cost the Conservatives about 10 seats in 2021.

On the other hand, it may make him attractive to soft Liberal voters who are tired of Trudeau.

Next week’s column will examine the Pierre Poilievre campaign.


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