Analysis

Philippe Couillard's summer vacation cut short, faces early test

Summertime, and the living is easy. But Quebec's political class clearly didn't get the memo. At the tail end of the dog days, the Liberal government suddenly found itself in crisis management mode.

Jacques Daoust's departure doesn't mean premier can avoid tough questions

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard found himself in crisis-management mode when his transport minister resigned suddenly last week. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Summertime, and the living is easy. But Quebec's political class clearly didn't get the memo. 

At the tail end of the dog days, the Liberal government suddenly found itself in crisis management mode. 

Its scandal-plagued transport minister, Jacques Daoust, finally ran out of lives. In the end, though, it wasn't his work at transport that cost him his job. 

Sure he provoked an internal rebellion over his proposed reforms to Quebec's taxi laws, and sure his staff appeared to turn a blind eye to problems within the ministry of transport. But none of that was enough for Premier Philippe Couillard to cut him loose.  

No, Daoust's undoing was insisting that he knew nothing about Investissement Québec​'s (IQ) decision to sell the province's stake in Rona to an American corporate giant while he was minister of the economy in 2014.

Opposition members are hoping to call Jacques Daoust, right, to testify before a commission on Thursday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Rock and a hard place

The transaction between Rona and Lowe's, admittedly, put the Liberals in a tough spot: avowed free-marketers on the one hand, and sensitivity to the economic nationalism evoked by their rivals on the other. 

They opted to wash their hands of the deal, or so they claimed, portraying it as a consensual transaction occurring outside its sphere of influence.

The Parti Québécois wanted the government to use its stake in Rona to block the takeover bid by refusing to sell its shares to Lowe's.

That stake, after all, had been acquired during a previous takeover bid by Lowe's in 2012. Jean Charest's Liberals had stepped in then to prevent the homegrown hardware chain from falling into American hands. 

But when it emerged that it was too late, that IQ had already sold its shares, then-PQ leader Pierre Karl Péladeau was livid. 

Daoust, who as economy minister was responsible for IQ when the shares were sold, just shrugged and said he wasn't consulted about the transaction. 

The first problem, for Daoust, was that minutes of a 2014 IQ board meeting showed he was present while a discussion of the shares took place. Daoust parried by questioning the accuracy of the minutes.  

But a fatal blow was struck last week when emails emerged that showed IQ executives asking Daoust's chief of staff whether the minister was OK with it selling its Rona shares to Lowe's.

The chief of staff, Pierre Ouellet, replied "OK" after saying he would check with his boss. 

Rona shareholders overwhelmingly approved the Lowe's takeover in a spring vote. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

High drama?

On his way out the door, Daoust kept insisting he didn't know about the sale of the shares. The opposition interprets that denial as meaning one of three things:

  • Daoust is lying.
  • A political staffer took it upon himself to authorize a $144 million transaction.
  • Or, Ouellet went around Daoust and sought approval directly from the premier's office.

The Coalition Avenir Québec wants to call Daoust, Ouellet and Rona to testify before a parliamentary committee on Thursday in an effort to establish which is most likely.

In the past the Liberals have used their majority to veto witnesses they don't want testifying before committees. Couillard was evasive on Saturday when pressed about whether he would let Ouellet give his version of events. 

"It's up to parliamentarians to decide," he said. But when pressed further, he said he would have "no problem" with Ouellet appearing before the committee.

If indeed the opposition is able to call Ouellet et al. before the committee, it holds out the prospect of high drama. We'll know then that the political season has started in earnest. 

The CAQ's finance critic François Bonnardel has made a formal request to have Daoust, Ouellet and a former Rona executive testify on Thursday. (Radio-Canada)

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.