Trouble aboard the CAQ: Is the problem the captain or the crew?

Suddenly nothing looks so certain for the CAQ. Polls vary about its current standing, but all agree CAQ support has started to drop — and fast.

Polls vary about its current standing, but all agree support is dropping — and fast

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault went into the election as the clear frontrunner. After three debates, the race is now closer than ever. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

In the Concerto ballroom of the downtown Delta earlier this week, a string of big-name candidates for the Coalition Avenir Québec took turns behind a podium, professing their faith in the party's leader. 

François Legault is the "man of the hour," said Ian Lafrenière, the former spokesperson for Montreal's police force. Sonia Le Bel, an ex-Crown prosecutor, said that her confidence in Legault hadn't "wavered for one second."

Of course in a different context there would be nothing remarkable about this show of loyalty. But these are unsteady times on the good ship CAQ, and Wednesday's news conference only seemed to confirm that doubts have been circulating about the captain. 

At the outset of the campaign last month, the CAQ was set to coast to power. It was leading in every poll, and by margins that placed it in majority territory. 

This seven-year-old upstart just needed to hold steady through the campaign in order to make history as the first new party to take power in Quebec since 1976.

And one of the main reasons the CAQ found itself in this position was by convincing Quebecers it was something more than a vehicle for the ambitions of a multi-millionaire founder of an airline company. 

Sonia Le Bel is one of the CAQ's star candidates in this election. She rose to prominence as a prosecutor for the Charbonneau commission, a provincial anti-corruption inquiry. (Charles Contant/CBC)

For several months, it has been showcasing rising-star MNAs and high-profile candidates, the potential cabinet ministers in a CAQ government. 

But suddenly nothing looks so certain for the CAQ. Polls vary about its current standing, some suggest the Liberals have pulled ahead in the popular vote, but all agree CAQ support has started to drop — and fast. 

Quebecers, the pollsters tell us, want change. But they are second-guessing whether the CAQ is ready to govern. 

Ironically for the party, the problem over the past week hasn't been their roster of candidates; it's been the leader himself. 

Avoiding history repeating itself

The fear of inexperience, of coming across like a bunch of amateurs, is encoded deep in the CAQ's DNA.

Legault, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister, created the party in 2011 as a nationalist third way between the sovereigntist PQ and the federalist Liberals.

It positioned itself on the centre-right of the spectrum, advocating for lower taxes and immigration levels.

The party merged a short time later with the remnants of the Action democratique du Québec.

The ADQ had been a bit-player in Quebec politics for most of its existence until 2007, when it capitalized on fears that too much was being done to accommodate the province's religious and cultural minorities. 

Under its firebrand leader, Mario Dumont, the party went from four to 41 seats in that year's election, coming within a hair's breadth of winning the whole shebang.

But Jean Charest, at the head of a minority Liberal government, made the ADQ's team of rookies look hopelessly out of their depth. 

Action démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont speaking to party members in 2008. Dumont is now the host of a popular current affairs program on TVA. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

When Charest held another election, nine months later, the ADQ was nearly wiped out. 

"Honestly, it was too high too fast," said François Bonnardel, an MNA for the CAQ in Granby and who was first elected as part of that ADQ wave in 2007. 

"We made a lot of small errors that made it seem like we couldn't meet the expectations of Quebecers."

Unlike its predecessor, the CAQ has a core of experienced MNAs after having won 19 seats in 2012 and 22 seats in the last election.

Bonnardel, and other veterans, made a point of breaking in the party's newer recruits and ensuring they understood their portfolios.

"At the beginning it was a one-man show," Bonnardel said of the CAQ caucus after the 2014 election. "But after two years, we started to show off our MNAs, one-by-one."

Along with cultivating a deeper bench, they attracted a number of high-profile figures from a cross-section of society to run for the party in this election. They include:

  • Danielle McCann, a high-ranking Montreal public health official, touted as a possible health minister.
  • Lionel Carmant, a well-known pediatric neurologist, and a spokesperson for the CAQ's childcare policies.
  • Marguerite Blais, a cabinet minister in Charest's government and well-known seniors advocate. 

Most of the party's star candidates, though, come from the business world. Legault's "economic team," unveiled last month, consisted of 35 names. That's almost 30 per cent of the CAQ's slate. 

The draw reflects the CAQ's centre-right policies, such as tax cuts, diversifying export markets and public-sector layoffs. At the outset of the campaign, Legault promised to be the "premier of the economy."

Among the CAQ's most prized new recruits are Nadine Girault, a high-roller in Montreal investment circles, Christian Dubé, ex-V.P. at Quebec's pension fund manager, and Éric Girard, a long-time banking executive.

Girard has been the party's representative at recent economic debates and so would seem to have the inside line on the finance minister's position.

'At the beginning it was a one-man show,' said CAQ MNA François Bonnardel said of his party's caucus. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

No longer party of one 

But for all the work that went into assembling the party's strongest slate of candidates to date, they have been kept out of the spotlight for long stretches of the campaign.

"He has to bring his new candidates to the forefront, even if he's afraid they might make mistakes," said Christian Lévesque, a former ADQ MNA who played a key role in its merger with the CAQ. 

"So far, the campaign has been centred on Legault. The next phase has to be about its ability to govern." 

The CAQ is Legault's brainchild, and its fortunes have been inextricably tied to his own popularity. 

So when Legault began to stumble over immigration questions — offering conflicting versions of his own policy and making factual errors about the current rules in place — the party's whole campaign appeared to run aground. 

The precise mechanics of his proposal to force immigrants to undergo language and values testing can seem, at times, to exist only in Legault's mind. This has made it difficult for candidates to advocate for the policy.

CAQ supporters say Legault needs to rely more heavily on the other candidates in his party in order to reverse his fortunes. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

At times, for instance, Legault has spoken about expelling those who fail. In Thursday's debate, however, he insisted no one would be expelled (a power which the province doesn't have anyway).

He has also proposed that Quebec reduce not only the number of economic immigrants it accepts, but also the number of refugees and those who come on family reunification grounds.

That came as a surprise to at least some within his own party. Two MNAs told Radio-Canada that Legault hadn't mentioned those further reductions when outlining the policy to his caucus before the election.

Moving past these controversies can't happen unless Legault is willing to rely more heavily on his candidates, said Lévesque, who now runs a political consulting agency.

Legault made steps in that direction in the final debate of the campaign Thursday. At one point he rattled off the names of nine candidates in an effort to show there is more to the CAQ than just him.

"Polls suggest people want change, but you have to show them that you can govern on their behalf," Lévesque said. "Otherwise, voters will return to their old habits."

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