The Quebec election wildcard that is the Liberals' Philippe Couillard

'Philippe-flop' or sober, steady hand, the rookie Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard faces his moment in the spotlight in tonight's TV debate, with his Liberals having unexpectedly surged ahead of the governing Parti Quebecois.

Rookie Liberal leader could face his first real test in tonight's leaders' debate

So who is this guy? Rookie Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, a virtual unknown at the start of the race, finds himself leading in recent polls. (Mathieu Belanger / Reuters)

In an election campaign where almost all bets are off, one wager with increasingly good odds is that Philippe Couillard will do better than most were expecting.

Leader of the Quebec Liberal party for just over a year now, his fortunes have been on the rise ever since media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau set foot on the political stage.

The equation is simple: Péladeau's enthusiasm for independence galvanized the Parti Quebecois old guard, but it also set off a round of referendum talk that polarized the electorate and sent voters scurrying back to their more traditional federalist/separatist camps.

He started off declaring that he would refuse to enter any constitutional negotiations, like those that might be required for Senate reform, without Quebec's traditional demands included.

Then, he ratcheted up the Liberal position by offering to travel the country to jump-start some new version of renewed federalism.

After a few more such forays, he finally changed tack and tried to take his distance from the whole affair, saying he'd prefer to talk jobs and, anyway, constitutional issues are not a big priority right now.

Reaction was quick and caustic.

He was pilloried for his indecision, even called incompetent. Worse still, a Le Devoir columnist declared him "the capitulator," a much more cutting handle than "Philippe-flop," the nickname he gained for similarly flailing about on the PQ's proposed secular charter in the fall.

So how to explain that, as the campaign edges towards the half-way point, momentum seems to be shifting his way?

Sober and safe?

A neurosurgeon originally from Sherbrooke, Couillard is a big, solid, placid man whose approach to issues is often sober and business-like.

He doesn't have the kind of personality to impassion the hordes. But then, the Quebec electorate may have had its fill of strong feelings with the debate over the values charter and the renewed referendum talk.

An unlikely politician, Couillard spent years in the rather insular world of medicine. Then, in 1992, he left Quebec for the even more insular world of Saudi Arabia where he worked for the next four years.

In 2003, he became Jean Charest's health minister, a position he held for five years while building up his political bona fides.

Slow, steady, but not unflappable, he occasionally bites back, as he did Tuesday when asked about his association with Arthur Porter, the disgraced former head of Montreal's super hospital and Canada's Security and Intelligence Review Committee, who is now facing charges of fraud.

"The accusations against him have nothing to do with me. And, frankly, I've had it with having to answer questions about it," Couillard snapped.

Two-party race

The Porter questions first arose a year ago because Couillard had been friendly with Porter before his fall. The two even went into a consulting business together in 2008, though the firm was never activated, and they served on SIRC at the same time.

Couillard has always claimed that, like so many others, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper (who appointed Porter to the SIRC), he was fooled by Porter, and the innuendo about their relationship has generally not stuck to him.

Tonight's debate will almost certainly put that resilience to the test.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois greets students at a training school while campaigning last week in Montreal. After a strong start, the PQ looks to be losing ground, according to some recent polls. (Ryan Remiorz / Canadian Press)

By his own admission, he's the rookie in the room, up against more practiced adversaries, all of whom are likely to pile on given what appears to be the Liberal ascendency of late.

One element in his favour, perhaps, is that few Quebecers have a strong impression of Couillard, a lack of opinion and attention that may have softened the impact of his ditherings (but a void that nonetheless remains to be filled).

He also has one other advantage built into his very position.

Simply, he is the leader of a party that has a big machine and a long tradition, and that is widely considered the only other option to the PQ in what could be more of a throwback two-party race.

Even in 2012, when the Liberal Party was plagued by the stain of corruption and Quebeckers were hell-bent on voting in anyone but Charest, the Liberals still won 50 seats to the PQ's 54.

As both Léger and CROP pollsters have been insisting, the outcome of this election is almost impossible to project right now: the numbers are simply too close. And the Couillard factor still needs to be fleshed out.

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She has covered domestic and international affairs, including the European economic crisis, the mass migration of refugees, and the Paris and Brussels attacks.


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