National Column: Quebec’s ruling party takes media hit on ethics

by Chantal Hebert

A year ago Tuesday, Pierre Karl PÈladeau abruptly quit as leader of the Parti Quebecois for family reasons and went back to running his media empire. A bit more than a month later, Bernard Drainville – the former minister in charge of the PQ’s controversial secularism charter and PKP’s house leader in opposition – also resigned.

With the official Opposition decapitated, the ruling Quebec Liberals had cause to believe the second half of their mandate would feature more smooth sailing than their choppy first two years in office.

Instead, 12 months later, Premier Philippe Couillard and his team are learning the hard way that the notion of keeping one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer applies to politics.

Drainville resigned shortly after political broadcaster Jean Lapierre died in a plane crash. As influential commentators go Lapierre was second to none in Quebec.

His sudden death left a big void in the province’s French-language punditry universe. Over the past year, Drainville has essentially filled that void.

A seasoned communicator who spent years on high-profile assignments for Radio-Canada prior to politics, Drainville is no less a household name than Lapierre.

But as opposed to the former federal minister, he spent his time in politics fighting the Quebec Liberals.

Meanwhile over the year since he left politics, PÈladeau has beefed up the Quebecor contingent in the national assembly. About a dozen members of the Quebec press gallery are on the company’s payroll. (By way of comparison, La Presse and Le Devoir each have three national assembly correspondents.)

Quebecor now boasts an on-site investigation unit. As far as I know, it is the only one of its kind within the national assembly precinct.

No provincial government would see that as a promising development. By definition such a unit is not in the business of beating the competition in the reporting of the day-to-day life of the national assembly. Its mission is to dig in places that politicians would like to keep off-limits to the media.

When it comes to setting the agenda of the press gallery, an investigative team can be in direct competition with the government.

Couillard just got a taste of that. He spent the last week scrambling to (once again) distance his government from that of his predecessor after a series of Quebecor media stories resurrected the issue of Liberal ethics.

No self-respecting media organization could fail to want to match the news – backed by confidential police documents – that the province’s anti-corruption unit was as late as last year still looking into the activities of former premier Jean Charest.

The opposition parties had a field day. So did the head of the Montreal police union. In a radio interview, Yves Francoeur alleged political interference had blocked criminal charges against a member of Couillard’s caucus. That assertion has yet to be sustained.

The fact that none of last week’s stories featured a smoking gun does little to mitigate the damage to the government’s message track.

The issue of integrity has been the Liberals’ Achilles heel. Couillard has spent the past three years trying to put distance between his government and the scandals that saw, among others, former deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau charged with multiple counts of corruption. Normandeau and six co-accused are still awaiting their trial to start.

The Liberals now argue that PÈladeau is marshalling his journalistic forces to mount an air war against the government in the lead-up to next year’s election.

To shore up their narrative they note that PKP visited Quebecor’s national assembly bureau last week to personally congratulate his journalists on an investigative job well done.

What is certain is that Quebecor has a larger-than-life media footprint in Quebec. It owns TVA, the province’s largest private network, as well as the newspapers with the largest circulation in print. It has journalistic boots on the ground across Quebec.

In the last election a plurality of Quebec voters turned out to be impervious enough to the allegations of corruption swirling around the Liberals at the tail end of Charest’s last mandate to hand the party a majority government after only 18 months in opposition.

But the next Quebec campaign will take the Liberals into uncharted territory. Since the 1995 referendum, their most effective election weapon has been the perspective – under a PQ government – of another vote on Quebec’s political future. That’s an option that PQ leader Jean-FranÁois Lisee has put on ice until at least 2022.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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