Parliament is back in session in Quebec — and it's welcome
As the National Assembly resumes, opposition parties have to figure what role they will play in the crisis
Since the Quebec government gave itself unprecedented powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak by declaring a public health emergency in mid-March, the province's opposition parties have been fairly quiet.
With Premier François Legault holding near daily news conferences, it's his vision of what needs to be done that Quebecers know best.
On Wednesday, however, the National Assembly began sitting again, for the first time in nearly two months.
Only 30 of Quebec's 125 MNAs were allowed in the legislative chamber — the so-called Blue Room — in order to comply with physical-distancing guidelines.
But it was enough for two spirited sessions of question period. And the first person to ask a question of the government was the newly minted Liberal leader, Dominique Anglade.
Already the favourite, Anglade took over the party on Monday when her lone opponent in the leadership race, Alexandre Cusson, dropped out. Party executives hustled to hand her the reins.
"I was happy to break the ice," Anglade told reporters following her first spin in the leader's chair.
As leader of the Official Opposition, she now faces the delicate task of scrutinizing a popular government's handling of the greatest public health crisis in modern Quebec history.
It's delicate because the public's appetite for partisan politics is usually limited during moments of collective trauma.
In the current context, efforts to score political points risk being seen as crass attempts to trade on the deaths of the 3,220 Quebecer who have lost their lives to COVID-19 so far.
But the legislature's return does coincide with growing questions about Legault's handling of the outbreak, and in particular, about his slowly unravelling timeline for easing confinement measures in the Montreal area.
Anglade and her fellow opposition politicians have an opportunity now to define the role they will play in the next stages of the crisis.
Identifying the gaps
After the first question period under Anglade's leadership, it wasn't clear, though, whether the Liberals have developed a coherent critique of the government yet.
One line of questioning they pursued implied the government was moving too fast with its plan to ease confinement measures in Montreal by May 25, even though there are still hundreds of long-term care facilities struggling to contain outbreaks.
But another line of questioning, this one put forward by Nelligan MNA Monsef Derraji, suggested the government wasn't moving fast enough to relax measures in parts of the greater Montreal area where infection rates are lower.
Legault seized the opportunity to portray Derraji's proposal as a reckless disregard of public health concerns.
"I find the Liberal party is caving pretty easily to lobbying by chambers of commerce," the premier retorted.
But when taken together with the questions posed by the other parties, a fairly precise picture emerged Wednesday of where Legault's plan has failed to convince critics.
All three opposition parties, for instance, called on the government to be more transparent about the criteria it is using to decide whether to press forward with reopening more schools and stores.
Several held out the example of New York state, which created a handy website that spells out seven metrics that need to be met before a region is allowed to reopen — complete with colour-coded checkmarks.
"I still don't have any idea what objective, quantifiable criteria the premier will use when he decides to lift confinement measures in Montreal or another region in Quebec," said the Parti Québécois's interim leader, Pascal Bérubé.
The opposition hammered away, too, on testing, wondering how Legault could be setting dates for reopening Montreal when his government has been incapable of meeting its testing goals either in the general population or in long-term care homes.
Indeed, Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais faced so many questions about the situation in long-term care that House Leader Simon Jolin-Barrette stepped in at one point to take the heat off Blais.
Later Legault, not for the first time in this crisis, pledged that Blais still has his trust.
If he didn't know it already, Legault should have come away from Wednesday's question period with a pretty good sense of what is causing anxiety about his plan.
While none of the opposition parties made the case for a radically different approach to the crisis, they did succeed in highlighting issues that urgently need the government's attention.
Legault and his minister may not want to admit it, but this is good for them.
The return of parliamentary politics arrives as they are juggling ongoing outbreaks in Montreal and long-term care homes, the logistics of reopening schools and daycares in the rest of Quebec, the highest unemployment rate in 45 years and the prospect of a $15-billion deficit.
A few extra pairs of eyes can't hurt.