Philippe Couillard distances himself from Charest-era Liberals in wake of UPAC arrests

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard is distancing himself from the previous Liberal government after one of its key ministers was arrested Thursday on a slew of corruption-related charges.

Quebec premier says his party has changed since the days when Nathalie Normandeau was deputy premier

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says the Liberals' fundraising policies are now exemplary. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Premier Philippe Couillard is distancing himself from the previous Liberal government after one of its key ministers was arrested Thursday on a slew of corruption-related charges.

Nathalie Normandeau, who served as both municipal affairs minister and deputy premier under former premier Jean Charest, stands accused of conspiracy, corruption, breach of trust and bribery in connection with her political activities between 2000 and 2012. Normandeau's lawyer indicated she will plead not guilty.

Couillard served alongside Normandeau as health minister before resigning in 2008. He said the Liberal Party has changed underneath his leadership.

"Fortunately, we are living in a completely different context," Couillard told reporters Thursday morning.

Nathalie Normandeau served as both municipal affairs minister and deputy premier under former premier Jean Charest. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
He pointed out that campaign financing laws have been strengthened and that the Liberals now have an internal code of ethics.

"The party that I currently lead is exemplary in terms of political financing, we do grassroots fundraising," Couillard said.

Normandeau isn't the only former Liberal to face charges. Her one-time chief of staff, Bruno Lortie was also arrested this morning, as was Marc-Yvan Côté, a Liberal cabinet minister under Robert Bourassa.

Two former Parti Québécois staffers, including one close to former premier Pauline Marois, were also arrested.

Awkward moment

The arrests come at an awkward moment for the Liberals. They tabled an important mid-mandate budget Thursday afternoon, which comes after two years of unpopular budget cuts.

Few in the Liberal caucus were willing to discuss the allegations against Normandeau as they made their way into their morning caucus meeting.

Besides Couillard, only Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux spoke to journalists, and he simply stressed the police investigation's independence from the government.

The opposition parties were also initially reluctant to broach the allegations. None raised the issue in the morning's question period.

But as the scope of the charges become clear, the opposition sought to portray the Liberals as a party riven by corruption and unable to escape its past.

For the PQ, the arrests helped compensate for some of the disappointment the party felt at the Charbonneau commission, the provincial anti-corruption inquiry, which released its final report in the fall.

That report stopped short of establishing a link between political financing and the granting of government contracts. But Thursday's allegations are a step in that direction, the party said. 

"It's UPAC itself that is using the word 'systematic,'" said Agnès Maltais, the PQ's assistant parliamentary leader.

"The accusations deal with an organized system of corruption at the heart of a government, at the highest level of government, that lasted five years. That's very serious."

The PQ rejected Couillard's attempts to distance himself from the Charest-era Liberals. The party pointed out there are a number of current cabinet ministers who also sat in cabinet with Normandeau, including Tourism Minister Julie Boulet and Treasury Chair Sam Hamad. 

There are more than a dozen current MNAs who have been with the party since 2003, if not always continuously. 

"It's not a new government," said the PQ's public security critic, Pascal Bérubé. "It's essentially the same Liberal Party, the same Liberal organization. In many cases it's the same ministers, who said nothing this morning about their former colleague." 

Marois, for her part, declined to comment on the accusations facing Ernest Murray, who worked in her Charlevoix riding office.