The next Quebec provincial election is fewer than two years away and the current Liberal government, led by flip-flopping Premier Philippe Couillard, must be feeling somewhat uneasy after the Parti Québécois elected the very smooth Jean-François Lisée as its new leader.
There is only one reason why the Liberals still lead in the polls and that is a divided opposition. The PQ lost the last election not because Couillard ran such a good campaign. On the contrary, Couillard had two weapons in his arsenal: the PQ still wanted to separate Quebec from Canada and they were pushing intolerance via its controversial Charter of Values. Then Premier Pauline Marois recruited Quebec businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau as a star candidate. His immediate call for a separate Quebec sunk the party when he fist pumped his way towards that objective.
The PQ just concluded a very divisive leadership campaign. However, the ever so clever Lisée pledged that if elected he would not call a referendum during their first mandate. That is bad news for Couillard as it robs him of his main argument for keeping the PQ out of office. Now he must get his act together and govern. True, his team appears to have balanced the books in its first two and half years in office thanks to a wicked austerity program that whacked the health system in particular. But he has had too many Members of the National Assembly either quit politics or be forced out of their positions due to embarrassing scandals. He also can’t seem to stay on message, frequently backing away from grand proposals, wasting a year of the province’s public school boards’ time by promising to abolish their form of governance. Following several months of hearings, he backed off.
I have met Lisée several times. During the very brief 18-month Marois government, he was given the unprecedented portfolio of Minister Responsible for Anglophone Relations. During this time, he went out of his way to meet with English-speaking groups and individuals. In opposition, he spoke out loudly against the school board election reform. When I invited him to attend the opening of a gymnasium at an English school in his riding, he accepted. A week later in Quebec City, he was on hand for the hearings on the school board reform to personally support the English Montreal School Board.
Despite all of this, it is very unlikely many members of the Quebec Anglophone or Jewish communities are about to become card-carrying members of the PQ. They will vote for the Liberals by default.
One very comforting factor for the Jewish community has been having one of their own in a position of influence with the Liberals. Former D’Arcy McGee MNA Lawrence Bergman was the Minister of Revenue and then Chair of the Government caucus when Jean Charest was Premier. Bergman played a critical role in securing funding for the Jewish General Hospital new critical care wing and stood up on many dossiers. His successor, David Birnbaum, is now the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister Education and has the ear of all cabinet ministers. Under a PQ government, such connections would never exist.
One must not forget that Lisée was a backroom advisor to former PQ Premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard. And he believes that with referendums out of the picture, minorities may want to consider the PQ. “I know I’m no Moses but I’m telling the Liberals, ‘let my people go,’” Lisée told The Montreal Gazette. “I want anglos and allophones in. I want to say, listen, over a period of four years, let’s do as much together as we can.”
We will have to watch Lisée carefully these next two years. The Liberals still have the advantage of a divided opposition. That may be their best hope for staying in power.
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