Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Premier Entertainment.

Last week, the Quebec Liberals could hardly contain their glee that the young, charismatic André Boisclair had been elected as leader of the Parti Québecois. This had nothing to do with the fact that he is divisive figure in his own party, or that most commentators see him as all style, no substance. No, it was Boisclair’s admission that he used cocaine while he was a PQ Cabinet Minister in the 1990s that had the PLQ all in a schadenfrenzy.

“Could Mr. Boisclair be public security minister tomorrow morning?” mused Liberal minister of economic development Claude Béchard, whose party currently places third in the polls. “Could he be minister of justice in a government? I think the obvious answer is no, so at the end of the line, could he be premier? The answer is the same. We don't
think so.”

In fact, the obvious answer – if you look at precedents across the country – is yes. Canadians have been remarkably forgiving of Premiers who have broken the law or had substance abuse problems — and in some of the country’s most conservative provinces, not just in supposedly loosey-goosey Quebec.

Take B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. In early 2003, the leader of the B.C. Liberals was charged with drunk driving in Hawaii, fined, and ordered to undergo a 14-hour substance-abuse program. To Canadians under thirty-five — or certainly those who grew up watching Degrassi — drunk driving is a more repugnant offence than doing a line of coke at a party, because you're not only endangering your own life, but recklessly endangering others.

So, how did the British Columbians react at the ballot box? They cared more about the policies Campbell enacted in office than the crimes he committed on vacation and, in May, he became the first premier of B.C. to win a second term in 22 years.

But even when a premier’s substance-abuse problem affects their work, Canadians are likely to shrug it off. Take Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta and an admitted alcoholic. (No, please – take him.) In 2001, Klein drunkenly sashayed into a homeless shelter and got into an argument with the residents in an incident that got play in the media around the world. How did Albertans react to this international embarrassment? Sixty-seven per cent of Albertans said they didn't think any less of him. Then Klein was elected to a fourth term last year.

Columnists and commentators have seen Boisclair’s PQ victory election as a symbol of the hedonism and frivolity of Quebec society. How silly. Does anyone think British Columbia is a province of drunk drivers because of Campbell’s actions? No, of course not. Everyone thinks they’re a province of potheads.

And does anyone argue that Alberta is a province full of drunks because of Klein? Well, yes. But it’s only because, to some Canadians, being an Albertan is the next worst thing to being a Quebec separatist, so they get away such spurious character assassination.

The PLQ will really blow it if they keep focusing on Boisclair’s past recreational cocaine use. It makes them look like bullies who have nothing else on Boisclair. As past provincial elections have shown, Canadians – not just the Quebecois – are forgiving, or at least ambivalent, about such moral failings.

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