Montreal·Analysis

For Quebec Liberals, a summer to recover from self-inflicted wounds

Premier Philippe Couillard has some soul searching to do after a miserable legislative session.

Couillard has some soul searching to do after a miserable legislative session

Premier Philippe Couillard risks being seen as ambivalent about allegations of corruption. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

When the Quebec Liberals invoked closure to force a vote on its controversial Uber bill on Friday, it brought a merciful end to what was an interminable legislative session for the government. 

The Liberals are limping their way into the summer recess, following months of legislative flip-flops, ethics scandals and indecorous outbursts

But most unsettling for the government — and uplifting for the opposition — is the extent to which its wounds have been self-inflicted. 

An ethics commissioner's report that castigated former cabinet minister Sam Hamad (he was narrowly spared sanction), was executed at his own behest. 

The Liberal party's own youth wing rebelled publicly against Transport Minister Jacques Daoust's pro-taxi bill, convincing enough party members to pass a motion calling on the government to get with the times.

And then, of course, there was Robert Poeti, Daoust's predecessor, offering a surprisingly frank assessment of a culture of corruption and intimidation that had taken root within the Transport department.

Poeti helped expose a pattern of stonewalling that met attempts to investigate irregularities in how the department handed out contracts. 

He triggered a chain of events that led to Daoust firing his chief of staff, and provided fodder for opposition demands that Daoust himself be turfed from cabinet.

Quebec Transport Minister Jacques Daoust has faced calls for his resignation from the opposition. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
 

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Opinion polling suggests that despite their missteps, the Liberals have avoided bleeding too much support. Moreover, the next provincial election isn't scheduled until 2018; plenty of time to right the ship.

But it is also possible that, several months down the line, Liberals will look back at the winter and spring of 2016 as a missed opportunity.

Half way through the session, after all, the Opposition suddenly found itself leaderless following Pierre Karl Péladeau's surprise resignation. 

The Parti Québecois' attention was divided between the ​daily machinations of the National Assembly and the referendum-laced talk of its leadership campaign. 

But the party managed more than a glancing wound when it produced the minutes of a meeting at Investissement Québec that put to rest Daoust's claim (notice a theme here) that he wasn't aware of the liquidation of Rona's stock while minister of economic development. 

The other troubling figure in recent polling data is the slight uptick registered in Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault's popularity.

His party seems to oscillate wildly between verging on extinction and being a serious alternative to the Liberals and the PQ. After a woeful series of months for the Liberals, the CAQ's fortunes swung back towards the latter extreme. 

In short, while the Liberals may not have lost much support numerically, they failed to deliver a knockout punch as its opposition was swaying on the ropes.

The stakes going forward

Former Quebec Treasury Board president Sam Hamad avoided being sanctioned in a recent ethic commissioners report. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

As he approaches the twilight of his first term in office, Couillard faces the challenge of establishing a more defined identity for himself and his government. 

He made some attempts recently. He has called himself the "premier of education" at a party convention in May, and tried to point out last week that the economy has put up some better numbers under his tenure.

Couillard's arguments were muffled, though, by questions about what he plans to do with Hamad and how he will handle the problems within the Transport department. 

The premier risks being seen as taking an ambivalent approach to tackling corruption within the government. 

Daoust's ex-chief of staff, Pierre Ouellet, was initially reassigned to another ministry, before he left under further questions from the opposition.   

Daoust, himself, has been accused of dithering while an independent investigator in the Transport department was trying to flag concerns to his office.

The Liberals blocked attempts last week to call further witnesses before a parliamentary committee looking into the problems at Transport.  

And Couillard clearly still has a soft spot for Hamad, calling him someone "fiercely dedicated to the population." 

Jean Charest's own unwillingness to be more decisive in dealing with allegations of corruption in his government contributed to his defeat in 2012, and has dogged his reputation ever since.  

Couillard, over the summer, has to decide whether he wants to be Charest 2.0 or make a definitive break from the troubled past of his party.