Philippe Couillard has fixed Quebec. So why is he headed for defeat?

Quebec Liberal Opposition Leader Philippe Couillard responds to reporters questions, Thursday, February 13, 2014 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

 

Quebec premier Philippe Couillard was elected to a majority government in 2014 on a platform that promised to put Quebec’s fiscal house in order.  By all measures, his government has achieved it.  He initially appointed three reputable economists to serve in his cabinet.  Finance Minister Carlos Leitao, formerly of the Laurentian Bank, has delivered budget surpluses for four straight years – including in a budget tabled last Tuesday.  Taxes are lower, though only marginally; unemployment has hit record low levels to the point that there’s a labour shortage; and business is booming.  Optimism amongst small business owners is higher in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada.  Quebec, once the economic basket case of mainland Canada, is now a driver of prosperity.

For most governments, this would be a golden ticket to reelection.  Few governments are toppled when unemployment is low and consumer confidence is high.  A governing party under these conditions should make a promise to keep it going, throw some tax cuts in their platform, and sit back to watch the vote tally in their favour.

And yet, the Quebec Liberals have managed to fall far back in all recent polls at the expense of the unexperienced Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), a party peddling populist nationalism.  Ten Liberal MNAs have announced they won’t run in the October 1 election, knowing quite well what outcome likely lays ahead for them.

Part of the problem is plain old voter fatigue.  Other than the blip in 2012-2014 when the Parti Québécois (PQ) held power under Pauline Marois, the Liberals have governed the province continuously since 2003.  But part of the discontent with the Liberals can be chalked up to their complete lack of direction on nearly every important issue.

In their early days, Couillard’s economic gurus floated the idea of privatizing certain government operations, include the SAQ liquor monopoly.  Not only did that never happen, the SAQ’s powers were reinforced when the government gave them a total monopoly on cannabis.  Recall the Finance Minister once said, “I will never have the obligation to commercialize [marijuana] even if it becomes legal.”  The CAQ now talks about privatization, but this feat will only be harder thanks to the original proponents of breaking the monopoly.

Despite smooth talk to the anglophone community, the Liberals seem uncomfortable with having the support of English Quebecers.  Late last year they indulged the PQ’s bonjour/hi nonsense, putting out an embarrassing motion encouraging stores to stop welcoming customers with the bilingual greeting.  Add on a 2016 regulation forcing stores like Best Buy to modify their logo to add a French description.  Leave aside the fact that most brand names are meaningless when read in literal English (fancy Canadian-made tires, anyone?), this is a law no one but the PQ asked for – but the Liberals happily obliged.  Here too the CAQ sees an opportunity to drain support from the Liberals, despite leader François Legault’s own history with linguistic dogmatism.

And while Quebec officials have been trotting the globe to promote the province as a place for economic growth, they’ve implemented roadblocks to hurt businesses that already invest here.  The Liberals were extremely hostile to Uber when it first made its way into the province, and no permanent solution has yet been implemented to keep them here.  In last week’s budget, the government announced that Quebec would add sales taxes to Netflix and other online service providers, positioning it as a great victory against encroaching U.S. companies – even though the only ones paying more will be Quebec consumers.  And while calls have been flooding into Hydro-Quebec’s offices with crypto-mining companies interested in settling here, the Premier shut them down earlier this month saying, “we’re not really interested.”

And of course, there’s Bill 62, the watered-down version of the Charter of Values originally proposed by the PQ in the last election.  The law forbids anyone with religious facial covers from receiving services from the government.  Despite what you think of the law, it’s estimated to only affect between 50 and 150 people in the province.  Why did a government originally hostile to the idea spend so much capital limiting the rights of so few people?

Aside from balancing the budget, it’s really hard to see what the Liberals accomplished that the PQ wouldn’t have also done.  It’s also difficult to see any principled path for them in the future.

The only major announcement that came out of their budget last week was to pay down part of the province’s mountainous debt by $10 billion before 2023.  This is great news, but not exactly the drug that will keep voters coming back for more.  There was of course an orgy of spending – financed by the government’s strategic crisis reserves – but it was the usual inconsequential, pre-electoral gambit.

You’d expect this to be a government at the end of its useful life, not one ready to take on the next half decade of challenges ahead.  With the books painstakingly balanced, the Liberals have nothing left to stand for.

Tom Kott is a consultant at HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.

Photo Credit: Montreal Gazette

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