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Despite Couillard’s Suspect Leadership Federalist Liberals Still on Top

Mike Cohen

It is great to be back writing for B’nai Brith Canada, our country’s pre-eminent human rights organization.

During the 17 years I served as the former Jewish Tribune Newspaper’s Quebec bureau chief, a common topic was the Jewish community and its degree of comfort with the provincial government of the day.

We have gone back and forth between the federalist Liberals and the separatist Parti Québecois. Besides the 1995 Quebec referendum, which saw the PQ come so close to breaking up our country, the Jewish community’s greatest discomfort came in the fall of 2013. The PQ was back in power, albeit with a minority government, and decided that a little intolerance might give them the push needed to move into majority territory. The so-called Charter of Values was born. It proposed that public employees would not be allowed to wear overt religious symbols at work. The minister in charge of the dossier Bernard Drainville, promised that if the charter were adopted by the legislature, the wearing of kippas, turbans, burkas, hijabs and “large” crosses would be banned for civil servants while on the job.

While the Jewish community and other ethnocultural organizations loudly opposed the proposed legislation, polls seemed to indicate that many voters liked the idea. So the following spring, then Premier Pauline Marois called an election.  Philippe Couillard of the Liberals had shown himself to be a weak opposition leader while the head of the third party, former separatist cabinet minister François Legault of the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec (CAQ) was not regarded as much of a threat. Marois also thought she had a secret weapon in  wealthy businessman Pierre-Karl Péladeau. But the day she introduced him as a star candidate, he rose his hands in the air with a large fist pump and called on Quebec to make its own country. Marois had handed the Liberals a gift. They sunk in the polls as citizens feared another referendum while the Charter of Values showed no signs of popularity.

Two and a half years later, Couillard still does not appear to be qualified to govern this province, flip flopping on policies and decisions quite regularly. He might even bring us his own version of Charter of Values “light.”  But he continues to lead in the polls by default. After Marois resigned, Péladeau easily won the PQ leadership. Only in Quebec would a man who was chiefly responsible for his party’s defeat be rewarded this way. He was quite simply a disaster in that role and quit politics altogether less than a year later. Now a race to crown his successor is on and separation remains the hot topic, even though Quebecers want nothing to do with it.

Couillard began his mandate by making major cuts, chiefly in the health sector.  He’s had several ministers step down or replaced, showing on his part a lack of judgement. The Liberals announced an unpopular plan to revamp the governance structure in the public school system and made it clear for many months that they had no intent to back off. Yet the Premier did just that, allowing his minister to scrap the legislation in favor of something less threatening.

The next election will be on Oct. 1, 2018. Couillard has two years to get his act together and hope that the PQ continues to push separation and Legault keeps splitting the vote along with another hardline separatist party called Québec Solidaire.

For members of the Jewish community and anglophones in general, there is always a degree of comfort when a federalist party is in power.  While Couillard pushed popular Jewish D’Arcy McGee MNA Lawrence Bergman into retirement prior to the last election, he did replace him with someone in David Birnbaum who has represented the community very well.

Traditionally, Quebec voters give their parties at least two successive mandates. So far, Couillard has not earned it, but if he can show himself to be more decisive  between now and 2018, he might just get re-elected.

Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mikecohencsl