Yesterday’s Man? Maybe Not

Sometimes perceptions don’t match reality. I saw that in action this past week.

The race is on to find a leader for the Conservative Party of Canada, to replace Erin O’Toole who was ousted by the party caucus earlier this year. I’m following the race closely, given that the new leader may very well be Canada’s next prime minister. From time to time in this space I will give my impression of those I have met on the campaign trail.

I spent some time this past Friday evening on a Zoom call with Jean Charest, who at this point is considered one of the frontrunners in the race. I’ve never met the man in person, and I figured I should take the opportunity to listen, and maybe ask a question or two.

Jean Charest is a well-known Canadian politician, a fomer premier of Quebec, former party leader and former federal cabinet minitster. A friend of mine dismissed his candidacy when Charest announced his intentions. He said Charest shouldn’t be in the running because of his age.

I understand that perception. Charest has been around forever it seems. He was appointed to cabinet not long after being first elected in 1984 – the youngest cabinet minister in Canadia history. Most Canadians can’t remember when he was not in public life.

Age though really isn’t a factor. I may be prejudiced – I’m a few years older than Charest and don’t feel disqualified by my age, or too old to serve. (Though I may be too smart to run for public office. I’ve been there before and have no desire to repeat the experience.) Charest is also 15 years younger than Joe Biden, who was first elected to office about a decade before Charest and is now president of the United States.

I went into the meeting prepared to be underwhelmed. I was never a fan of the government that Charest was part of. Back then I volunteered for a couple of different political parties working to defeat Charest and his colleagues. But I promised myself I would go into the call with an open mind.

What I heard impressed me.

Today’s politicians are very good at telling you what they are against. It is easy to oppose. It isn’t as easy to build, to propose policies, to suggest ways of solving problems. Charest, as will be said many times during the campaign, comes across as the adult in the building. He spoke with respect of his leadership race opponents and of the Prime Minister, even as he disagreed with them on certain policy proposals.

He may be overestimating the desire for adult conversation in what is a very fractured party. He may not be able to unite the party and the country the way he hopes. But listening to his calm presentation and the way he fielded questions, I found myself wishing he had the chance. For an hour anyway, I became a Charest fan.

I’m not going to delve into policy here, just give first impressions. As would be expected, he seemed to have a good understanding of the issues Canada faces, and ideas to deal with them. There was no bombast, no rhetoric, just thoughtfulness. That will appeal to a lot of voters, inside and outside the party.

Of course the man has a lot of political baggage, given his long history in the public eye. Thinking about it, I wondered if that baggage might be helpful – something that is a negative in Quebec might be seen as a positive in a different part of the country. And vice versa.

There are months to go before the ballots are counted on September 10. At this point a few of the candidates are only names to me. I don’t think I can predict a winner yet.

Well, I did in a private conversation a couple of weeks back, but I’m not ready to do that in public. I want to at least wait until the nomination period closes.

In the meantime, I will continue to follow the race. Sometime in the next week I’ll share my impressions of another candidate that I met at a rally recently. Unlike Charest, this one definitely is not ready for prime time. But that’s a story for another day.

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