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More signs point toward fall election in Quebec

Quebec Premier Jean Charest watches during a ceremony where Lafontaine MLA Marc Tanguay is sworn in at the legislature in Quebec City on Wednesday, June 27, 2012.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec's provincial politicians are printing signs, unveiling platform planks and rushing onto Twitter as they prepare for the growing certainty they will be running in a summer election campaign.

Some politicians are also quitting to get out of the way of campaign buses likely to roll while most Quebeckers are still at the beach.

Norman MacMillan, a long-time cabinet minister known for his candour, revealed on Wednesday that he is stepping down seven weeks earlier than planned. Quebec Liberal Party organizers asked him to move up his departure to make way for a campaign and a new candidate, he said.

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"Everyone thinks elections will be held soon, so the decision was made now for that reason. It's clear, I can't hide it," Mr. MacMillan told reporters at his constituency office in Buckingham, Que. "I don't have the date. [Premier Jean] Charest knows it, along with a few people in his entourage. But it's coming."

Possible election dates have been tossed about for weeks. One newspaper reported on Wednesday that Sept. 4 is the Liberal Premier's preferred election day, while others recently reported it was Sept. 17. Either way, much of the campaign seems likely to take place before Labour Day.

That would also be before an inquiry into allegations of corruption in the awarding of government construction contracts resumes hearing witnesses on Sept. 17.

The inquiry promises to deliver embarrassing revelations through the fall and most of 2013.

Mr. Charest hinted he was planning an August campaign as he headed off on a European vacation earlier this month. He urged reporters assembled for a cabinet meeting to take vacation in July. The Liberals have accelerated basic campaign preparations such as taking publicity photos, preparing signs and renting office space.

"Part of it is normal in the fourth year of a mandate, part of it is indeed ramping up," said Geoffrey Kelley, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, who was visiting native communities in the Gaspé. "But if you want to know when, exactly, you have to call 1-800-Jean-Charest."

Most of Mr. Charest's political staff are also on holidays.

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Mr. Charest wants to go to the polls "as quickly as possible," La Presse reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed sources, saying the Premier believes the timing will never be better.

The report included caveats: Mr. Charest still wants to see some final polling, and his cabinet is apparently split on the wisdom of a snap vote.

The report had the opposition calling Mr. Charest an opportunist who wants to campaign while no one is paying attention.

"I would be profoundly disappointed if the Premier acted this way. Half of Quebec is on vacation, and they're not necessarily in the mood to listen to political parties. It's deeply cynical," Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said.

Polls consistently show Mr. Charest has dismal approval ratings, but the PQ and the Coalition avenir Québec have failed to capitalize, leaving voters divided and unenthusiastic.

Several senior Liberal cabinet ministers have departed recently. Mr. Kelley said Liberals will miss Mr. MacMillan, an affable sort who lifts spirits at dark times.

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The Liberals have had plenty of those recently, as they have lost key people, struggled against a vigorous student protest movement and faced allegations of corruption.

"I hate to fall into sports clichés, but Norm is the type of guy anyone would want in the locker room. When the team needs a boost, he's the guy to do it," Mr. Kelley said.

The corruption inquiry isn't the only strategic factor at play.

Quebec's student protests have been small and quiet in July, and will quickly ramp up through August as the school year resumes.

Mr. Charest is not afraid of the protests – most Quebeckers support his plan to increase tuition fees, so it would form a handy ballot question that doesn't involve corruption.

He is also likely to press his traditional argument that a PQ government would reignite the independence debate, which polls show most Quebeckers would prefer to let lie.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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