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Canada

Once Canada’s most popular premier, Quebec’s Legault trails in polls after bad year

QUEBEC — For more than four years, Quebec’s governing Coalition Avenir Québec enjoyed a political honeymoon that lasted through the COVID-19 pandemic and helped the party get re-elected in 2022 with 90 of the province’s 125 ridings.

But after a year marked by a series of self-inflicted wounds, the CAQ, which came to power for the first time in 2018, is sinking in the polls. 

“This was a horrible year for the CAQ and, especially, for (Premier) François Legault,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

The most recent Léger poll, in early December, indicates that support for the party dropped 16 percentage points since December 2022, with the Parti Québécois — with four members in the legislature — now in first place. 

“That’s a dramatic drop in terms of public support,” Béland said in an interview Thursday, adding that the personal popularity of Legault, whose image is deeply intertwined with the party he founded, has “plummeted.”

A recent Angus Reid poll ranked Legault as the country’s least popular premier. 

The CAQ’s annus horribilis may have begun last winter when Quebecers were unable to receive services from the province’s automobile insurance board — which issues driver’s licences and registers vehicles — for several weeks due to problems with a new digital platform.

Digital Minister Éric Caire, who was responsible for some elements of the transition, initially asked why he wasn’t receiving praise for his part in the project. Shortly after, he described what happened at the insurance board as a “fiasco.”

Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault was soon the face of another crisis. In April, she was sent out alone to announce that the government would not build a car tunnel under the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and its suburbs.

The tunnel — known as the third link — had been one of the party’s key election promises in 2022 and championed by Legault for years for the capital region.

That flip-flop came out of nowhere, Béland said, and led to open dissatisfaction in the CAQ caucus, with Education Minister Bernard Drainville weeping in public. 

“I think this was the turning point,” Béland said.

In late October, the CAQ lost a Quebec City riding to the PQ in a byelection. The next day, Legault promised to bring back the third link for cars.

The premier would later joke about his changing position on the project, telling the legislature during a Christmas message that he had asked Santa for a compass. 

Looking to reconnect with the electorate — particularly in the Quebec City area — the government announced in November that the Los Angeles Kings NHL team would play two pre-season games in Quebec City — with up to $7 million in government funding.

The subsidy to the NHL was announced one week after an economic update that gave the province’s food banks $8 million less than they had asked for and forecast that public finances would be “tight” over the next few months.

The byelection loss “created a sense of panic among the CAQ government and they took measures, like the subsidy to the L.A. Kings, that made them even less popular,” Béland said.

Promising millions of dollars to the Kings also handed ammunition to public sector unions, whose members were either in the midst of a series of temporary strikes, or days away from a general walkout. It was not the only move that caused conflict with workers renegotiating their contracts. 

In June, the legislature adopted a government bill that increased members’ salaries immediately by 30 per cent, to $131,766.

A Léger poll commissioned by opposition party Québec solidaire suggested that three out of four Quebecers opposed the increase, but Legault defended the raise, saying elected officials have the right to make “as much money as possible” for their children. 

Government workers, such as teachers and nurses, had been offered an increase of around 13 per cent over five years. 

“Overall, there is a general dissatisfaction toward François Legault and the CAQ government, so it’s not just, I think, one of these events, or these issues, it’s the accumulation of things over time,” Béland said. 

With the province’s next election almost three years away, a lot can change, Béland said, but Legault’s image of being in touch with Quebecers — at least francophones — has been shattered.

“It’s not a lost cause, in the sense that they can probably regain some of the support they’ve lost, but the aura of invincibility that they had until recently is gone.”

Legault told reporters earlier in December that 2023 was not “politically easy” because there were “a lot of controversies,” but he said he has no plans to quit or shuffle his cabinet. 

“I think that, at the end of the day, when we’ve delivered services, I’m confident I’ll get (the public’s) trust back,” he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2023. 

Caroline Plante and Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press


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