Montreal·Analysis

How many fires can Jacques Daoust fight before he gets burned?

The embattled transport minister was already putting out one fire when his predecessor, helped light another one.

With the Uber bill hearings starting Tuesday, the transport minister's future hangs in the balance

Quebec Transport Minister Jacques Daoust replaced his chief of staff last week amid allegations of a stalled inquiry into corruption allegations. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

It was the last thing that Jacques Daoust needed.

The embattled transport minister was already putting out one fire when his predecessor, Robert Poeti helped light another one.

Daoust is, on one flank, fending off members of his own party unhappy with the tough new restrictions he's proposed for ride-hailing services, such as Uber.

Indeed some are so upset, they've vowed to try to unseat him if the bill goes through.

Now, on his other flank, he has to contend with concerns that senior figures in his ministry, and his own chief of staff, stalled a probe into irregular spending practices that had been launched by Poeti.

Together they don't augur well for Daoust's future as a member of Premier Philippe Couillard's cabinet.

The lesson of Sam Hamad 

Quebec Treasury Board president Sam Hamad said in March he was temporarily leaving his duties as a cabinet minister while he is being investigated by the province's ethics commissioner. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Couillard led the Liberals to victory in 2014, partly, by representing a break with the previous Liberal government, the ethical woes of which are still fresh in the minds of many.

And if those memories are not fresh enough, they have been periodically refreshed, such as with the arrest earlier this year of former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau on corruption charges related to her time in office. 

Couillard seems to sense that his government's electoral fortunes depend heavily on distancing itself from the Jean Charest era.

When ethical questions began to be raised about Treasury Board president Sam Hamad, who was also a cabinet minister under Charest, it didn't take long for him to disappear from the front benches. 

The danger for Daoust is being seen as soft on corruption. That makes him a potential liability for Couillard.  

A firebreak

Daoust's latest troubles originate in an article in the French-language magazine l'actualité, which revealed that Poeti had been probing irregular spending and tendering practices at Transport when he was ushered to the back benches.

Poeti had brought in Annie Trudel, a former investigator with the province's anti-corruption unit, for the job.

But it emerged last week that Trudel resigned about three months after Daoust took over from Poeti.

Her resignation letter is addressed to Daoust's then chief of staff, Pierre Ouellet. In it she wonders why the new political team hasn't supported her investigation. 

"In light of recent events, I have been forced to conclude that the new cabinet does not share the same priorities or preoccupations as the previous one," Trudel wrote.   

Daoust replaced Ouellet after the letter surfaced last week to "maintain the public trust in political institutions." 

But will the firebreak be enough to save Daoust from being singed?

Legislative hearings into his proposed amendments to the provincial taxi laws will begin on Tuesday. (CBC)

If 1 week = 1 lifetime in politics, then 2 weeks = ?

Much will depend on his ability to turn Bill 100 into law. Hearings on the bill, which would amend provincial taxi laws, begin Tuesday in the National Assembly. 

Daoust will then have a few short weeks to get it to the legislature floor for a vote. If passed before the summer recess, it would be an important win for Daoust, and might extend his shelf life, at least until the fall. 

With the Liberal majority, this should be easy to accomplish. But it's unclear how much support he can count on in the Liberal caucus.

If the bill hasn't won over party members, it's a safe bet that at least some MNAs are lukewarm about it as well.

The longer-term problem for Daoust is that he is behind two issues that have become a distraction for the Liberals.

At a recent party convention, Couillard tried to re-brand himself as "the premier of education." His education minister had unveiled an ambitious reform package. Quebecers were meant to be talking about how innovative the policy was.

Instead, the convention was dominated by internal wrangling over the Uber bill. And by the end of the week, it was stories about collusion and intimidation in the Transport Ministry that were making headlines. 

There are only so many fires that Daoust can fight before he gets burned.

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