Montreal·Analysis

Latest stand on specialists' pay just another flip-flop by new CAQ government

How many people does it take for the new Coalition Avenir Québec government to announce a policy? The average, so far, is two: one minister to make the announcement and another to revise, clarify or contradict the first.

François Legault's early days as premier have been marked by shifting policy positions

The latest about-face by Premier François Legault's government concerns whether to freeze pay increases for medical specialists. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

How many people does it take for the new Coalition Avenir Québec government to announce a policy?

The average, so far, is two: one minister to make the announcement and another to revise, clarify or contradict the initial position.

The latest oscillation concerns the government's position on pay raises for Quebec's medical specialists. 

Legault campaigned on a promise to tear up a pay deal the specialists signed with the previous government.

Last week, Legault appeared to take a first step toward fulfilling that promise, saying any raises due under the agreement would be frozen pending a new round of negotiations.

But on Wednesday, Treasury Board President Christian Dubé suggested there were, in fact, no immediate plans to freeze the pay hikes, and there might never be.  

"At this moment, there is no freeze because we need to understand the numbers before there is a freeze, if indeed there is a freeze," Dubé said outside of a cabinet meeting in Quebec City.

Treasury Board President Christian Dubé suggested the government wasn't ready to freeze the pay raises of medical specialists, despite Legault having said otherwise last week. (Radio-Canada)

The deal struck between Quebec and the specialists is notoriously complex.

According to the federation of medical specialists, there were no pay raises scheduled as part of the deal until 2023.

But the specialists are due to receive $125 million in new money beginning next year, partly to cover doctors doing administrative duties and partly to boost access to specialists' services. 

If that money was to be held back, the federation warned, patient services would suffer. Dubé said Wednesday he needed more time to parse the agreement before committing to a next step. 

Vagaries of the CAQ

A bit of mixed-messaging on a complicated file is not unusual for a new government. But in the early days of the Legault era, the examples are accumulating quickly. 

His minister of natural resources, Jonathan Julien, declared last week that he was open to hearing proposals from companies interested in oil exploration on Anticosti Island, a pristine 200-kilometre stretch of land in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

A few hours later, Legault emerged to say no, there was no openness on the government's part to drilling on the island. 

Same pattern for the CAQ's position on which articles of Muslim clothing it wants to legislate against. 

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette initially suggested a new law would seek not only to prevent authority figures from wearing religious symbols but would also ban all civil servants from wearing either the chador or niqab.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette initially suggested he wanted to ban the chador and niqab from Quebec's civil service. Legault later contradicted him. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Again, Legault emerged later to say banning the chador and niqab wasn't a priority. 

Sometimes Legault doesn't even need others to contradict his own positions. He first told reporters that Justice Minister Sonia LeBel would handle reforms to Quebec's marijuana legislation. 

Within a few days he had changed his mind and put the junior health minister, Lionel Carmant, in charge of the file. 

Time for one more bad joke?

When Legault unveiled his roster of 26 ministers earlier this month, he boasted that only he and Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais had served in government before. 

This lack of experience, though, might be contributing to the current confusion surrounding government policies, as rookie politicians are more inclined to speak out of turn. 

If so, the problem is likely easily solved. 

There is, however, another possible source of the confusion: a fundamental lack of ideological coherence within the cabinet.

In this government, one finds a politically diverse bunch, including ardent nationalists like Jolin-Barrette, fiscal conservatives like former pension fund manager Dubé, and even an avowed leftist like former Liberal minister Blais.

And while Legault has outlined priorities — health, education, the economy — he hasn't really expressed an encompassing vision of where he wants to take the province.

Without such a vision, the CAQ government risks being pulled in different directions or reduced to the premier's own whims.

For Quebecers, this holds out the prospect of a capricious, unpredictable government, a government that is a version of that old Maritime joke about the weather: 

If you don't like a CAQ policy, just wait five minutes, it's bound to change.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He covers politics and social affairs.

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