Quebec Liberal Party leadership candidate Philippe Couillard spoke to CBC Montreal's Daybreak ahead of the debates scheduled for Dec. 12.
Question: You're formerly the health minister in this province, that was a few years back but still, you have the Parti Québécois party taking power and the health minister looking like he wants to pull the Lachine Hospital from the MUHC umbrella. Have you been following this, first of all, and what do you make of the government's move?
Couillard: Of course I've been following this. I think it's another example of a wrong decision taken for the wrong reason.
I'm quite associated with this file because when I was in office, I initiated the process that ultimately led to the integration of Lachine to MUHC and my successor Yves Bolduc completed the work there. The reason was very simple, this hospital was very isolated. It had a lot of difficulty in attracting and retaining a critical mass of physicians, being able to be there around the clock to manage the wards and the emergency room, and we could see no solution in the near midterm future.
The integration and relationship of a large, reputable institution like the MUHC and McGill was, for us, the best solution and it has proven to be a good solution until now.
Q: Is the Lachine Hospital able to fulfill its crucial mandate in the West Island as a key French-language institution for French-speaking people under the MUHC umbrella?
Couillard: Sure. I totally object to this very artificial distinction between anglophone and francophone hospitals because they are all Quebec hospitals funded by the community serving all Quebecers in French and some of them also have a bilingual mandate like the MUHC.
But I remember when we started this process way back then, the PQ's objections were essentially based on language. Lucien Bouchard said it famously a few years ago: 'When you're sick, you don't need language tests, you need a blood test.' The same applies today. If you make a decision for the wrong reason, based on linguistic reasons or ideology, it's going to fail. I predict that they will have to backtrack again.
Q: Another big issue — and it does have to do with money again — in the province's higher education, we've had significant cuts having been announced for universities and CEGEPs taking place this budget year which ends in March... What do you think of the way the higher education dossier is being handled at this moment?
Couillard: It's very bad because this is a high-level of priority for Quebec or any society. Higher education is the way you become more productive and you grow your economy.
The PQ government has painted itself in a corner when it aligned itself with the [student] demonstrators during the summer and the fall. It basically told them 'if you demonstrate on the street, we'll be with you.' So here's the recipe for them to go on and carry on with this method of putting their ideas forward.
Personally, I think the tuition fees should be at least indexed at the level of inflation and also, maybe we should look at the way universities can be allowed to generate revenues on their own, so that's something to look at.
Q: You say that the problems that we are seeing now with university funding have to do with the deals that the government made with the students. What the government would say is that the previous Liberal government badly mishandled the budget and left them in a situation that was dire, where they had to pick up the finances and make pretty drastic cuts to ensure that they stayed on the targets that had been set out.
Why did the Liberal party leave the finances in such a mess?
Couillard: I would remind you that the previous government left the situation in a very different way. It left it with a proposed increase in tuition fees that made up for a lot of what was needed for funding universities.
If you combine the planned revenue that the tuition fee hikes planned to bring, and also the cost of better support education - bursaries and loans - to adjust to the new tuition fees, it did provide significant income to the universities. So what the government has done, it has cancelled tuition fee hikes - basically froze the tuition fees - and it kept the support measures at the same level. This cannot work financially.
Q: The province's economy is pretty much stalled. It virtually did not grow at all last year. That is a big problem when you are trying to fund such a big state that has responsibilities in health and education. What would you do to get this province moving again?
Couillard: We have to look at how productive our economy is. Because of demography, the coming years are not going to be easy. We are going to have less active people.
We need two things. First, we need to bring people in as much as we can. This means immigration, qualified immigration. More immigration that is well-adapted, well-integrated in Quebec and can immediately fill positions that are available. In Quebec City, they are calculating they will need 60,000 people between now and 2020. All these people will not be born here, obviously. So we need to find these immigrants abroad, check the level of competency, how they can adapt to the work market and bring them in, integrate them as fast as possible.
The other thing is to increase the level of innovation we bring in the economy.
The first Parti Liberal du Québec leadership debate takes place on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Collège de Maisonneuve. It will be streamed online on the PLQ site.