Philippe Couillard already has the Parti Québécois — and Pauline Marois’s inability to commit to holding (or not holding) a referendum on sovereignty — to thank for the Liberal election win.
Quebec’s next premier, who is set to unveil his cabinet this week, may also be grateful the PQ helped in laying out the new Liberal government’s top priorities.
Take, for instance, the secularism debate — a controversy Couillard pledges to resolve as soon as possible.
At its worst, the PQ’s proposed charter divided Quebecers and led to an upswing in reported cases of religious intolerance.
But at its best, it brought to the forefront the thorny issue of religious accommodations — a topic the Charest government had left dormant after the Bouchard-Taylor report.
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Now that a PQ government has forced the issue, the Liberals have little choice but to face it head-on.
Early in its mandate, the Couillard government is expected to table its own “charter of values” that will regulate religious accommodations and ban the wearing of face coverings when giving or receiving government services.
Dying with dignity
Another issue Couillard will likely address this spring is medical aid in dying. The PQ government was set to adopt its dying with dignity bill weeks ago but ran out of time, choosing instead to call an election.
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Late in the campaign, the bill’s champion, Véronique Hivon, said a re-elected PQ government would immediately re-table the bill unchanged. She hoped the Liberals would do the same if elected.
With dying with dignity’s broad support throughout Quebec society (and across party lines), Couillard again has to pick up where the PQ left off.
The day after his election as premier-designate, he pointed to the issue as a Liberal government priority.
Couilllard may not want to politicize this particular debate, but he also doesn’t want to make it seem like only a PQ government could support the dying with dignity cause.
He likely won’t be giving much credit to the previous government for its work, either.
Pushing Liberal issues forward
Couillard campaigned on the slogan, “Ensemble, on s’occupe des vraies affaires.”
It loosely translates to, “Together, let’s work on real issues,” but also suggests the PQ’s identity policies don’t warrant so much attention. Couillard will surely turn his attention early in his mandate to a familiar Liberal territory: the economy and jobs.
He recently suggested his “first concern” as premier will be to have the auditor general look at the province’s public finances. Once the results come back, Couillard says the Liberals could “then govern accordingly.”
That may be his first hint that a Liberal budget will contain sweeping austerity measures. The auditor general will surely conclude that public finances are in worse shape than first thought, allowing the new government to blame the previous one for having to make cuts.
Couillard has already vowed to reduce spending to the tune of $1.3 billion within two years and generate a budget surplus by 2015-16. One of his main tools will be to trim bureaucracy. Details about the cuts are scarce but already, public-sector unions have said they’re worried.
The power to act
Luckily for Couillard, he knows he can govern for the immediate future without worrying about public opinion and union backlash. Voters gave the Liberals 70 seats — a strong mandate to govern the way they want.
Jean Charest’s government faced backlash from unions early in its first term. Still, the Liberals held on to power for nine years.
Couillard could have an additional thorn in his side in the coming year — one that Charest didn’t have to consider in his early years as premier.
The thorny issue of corruption
The Charbonneau commission is examining political party fundraising. The names of Liberal MNAs — past and present — are widely expected to come up. Whether they actually took part in shady deals or not almost doesn’t matter. They’re bound to hurt Couillard’s image.
Recent revelations surrounding ex-deputy-premier Nathalie Normandeau may not hit the new government at its core — she quit politics in 2011. Normandeau herself says she always acted with “integrity, rigour and honesty.”
But the claims still gives opposition parties leverage in publicly associating the Quebec Liberal Party — and its leader — with backroom deals and dirty money.
The name recognition of Quebec’s oldest political party may have been Couillard’s biggest asset in gaining power. It may now be his biggest setback in retaining trust.