National Column: Quebec Liberals won’t suffer Wynne’s fate

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by Chantal Hebert

As the last national assembly sitting before the Oct. 1 provincial vote was winding down last week, a brief encounter with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard yielded an unsolicited prediction. “I have a secret for you,” he told me on his way out of a Radio-Canada studio. “I will win the election.”

Perhaps that was his way of saying that, come what may, he has no intention of following in outgoing Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s footsteps and delivering a pre-emptive concession speech.

In any event, the conviction that he will win – should it amount to more than bluster on his part – is one Couillard should keep to himself between now and the vote. The winds of change in Quebec may not have reached the full-gale force that delivered Doug Ford’s Tories a majority government in Ontario earlier this month, but they are certainly blowing hard enough to sweep a presumptuous incumbent out of office.

Published last week, the latest Leger poll showed the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) solidly in first place, 26 points ahead of the ruling Liberals among the francophone voters who will determine the outcome of the vote, and nine points ahead province-wide.

The Quebec Liberals have played defence in the past and, as often as not, ended up on top on election night. But the dynamics of the upcoming campaign bear little resemblance to the battles of the past. It is lining up to be a watershed election for reasons that are only indirectly related to Couillard’s record in government and circumstances that are partly beyond his control.

It has been more than 40 years since a new party came to power for the first time in Quebec. Over the decades that followed the Parti Quebecois’s first election victory in 1976, Quebec’s main federalist and sovereigntist parties took turns in power.

It seems that cycle is coming to an end. The re-election odds Couillard is facing pale in comparison to the apprehended fate of the PQ. If the election had been held this month, the sovereigntist party – at less than 20 per cent in voting intentions – would not have won enough seats to be officially recognized in the national assembly. The PQ’s problem is also Couillard’s. To win next fall, he needs a better split in the opposition vote.

The Liberals’s best re-election cards should have been a booming economy, operating at full employment, and the delivery – just in time for the campaign – of a provincial budget surplus. But these are aces that CAQ Leader Francois Legault’s business credentials, combined with his experience with economic portfolios as a former senior PQ cabinet minister, have so far trumped.

The latest Liberal hope is that once voters factor in the uncertainty arising from a potential Canada-U. S. trade war, more of them will question the wisdom of taking a risk on a party yet untested in government.

That message would probably resonate if the PQ – armed with a pro-sovereignty agenda – were still the main alternative to the Liberals. Whether it could do the trick in a one-on-one battle against the business-friendly CAQ is an open question.

With a pre-election lead such as the one enjoyed by the CAQ, most parties have to contend with an overabundance of would-be candidates fighting divisive riding battles for nominations.

But Legault’s party is not big on grassroots politics. Its candidates are, for the most part, hand-picked by the leader.

Legault is gambling that his party’s momentum will make up for the paucity of boots on the ground that inevitably results from his top-down approach to appointing candidates. In 2011, the NDP orange wave showed that it is possible to sweep Quebec with a less-than-optimal election machine.

A stronger team is what Couillard has yet to assemble. More than half-a-dozen ministers are not running again. The Liberals have been trying to make lemonade out of lemons by talking up the wave of departures as a great opportunity for renewal.

But the premier’s most prominent recruit to date is someone who will not actually be running. Instead, under the title of campaign chair, entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer has taken on the (safe) role of party mascot.

Of the three main Quebec parties, the Liberals are ultimately the least likely to be severely damaged by a defeat this fall. Their non-Francophone base should ensure that they are not reduced to a rump.

Unlike their sovereigntist rivals, they are not struggling to sustain the cause that is the very reason for their existence.

Unlike the CAQ, whose fate is inextricably tied to Legault, the Quebec Liberal party would not miss a beat if it had to find a replacement for Couillard to lead it in opposition. Candidates for his succession are already lining up at the post-election gate.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.
Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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