'I saved province from financial disaster,' says Quebec premier. But is anyone listening?

As 2017 begins, heralding a provincial election in less than two years, the CBC's Ryan Hicks takes this look at the challenges each leader will be mulling over as he makes his New Year's resolutions.

With next provincial election less than 2 years away, Quebec's party leaders jockeying for position in polls

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, shakes hand with CAQ Leader François Legault as the PQ's Jean-François Lisée looks on, on Dec. 9, 2016. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

As 2017 begins, the leaders of all three of Quebec's main political parties each face their own challenges. 

​Ryan Hicks takes this look at what the leaders are mulling over as each makes his New Year's resolutions.

Philippe Couillard

The premier's biggest handicap comes from something he has no control over: his party's past.

Last year, ethical questions about the actions of current and former Liberals dating back to the Charest government received a lot of attention.

In some cases, they drowned out what should have been good news for Philippe Couillard.

A prime example came last March, on the day the finance minister presented a surplus budget.

With two years of unpopular cuts behind them and the provincial's financial house finally in order, the fact that — by whatever means — the Liberals had fulfilled their promise to balance the books should have been the day's dominant news story.

Instead, the arrest of former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau on corruption charges stole the spotlight.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard arrives at a news conference marking the end of the fall session on Dec. 9. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

That wasn't all.

Former Treasury Board president Sam Hamad had to resign from cabinet after ethical questions were raised about his relationship with a disgraced former party fundraiser.

Then in the fall, Radio-Canada's Enquête linked former Liberal party fundraisers to an alleged real-estate fraud dating back to 2007.

The stakes will grow as the 2018 election gets closer.

Couillard recognizes this, and you can hear the frustration in his voice. Repeatedly, he has tried to create a separation between the party under his reign and the party under former leader Jean Charest, reminding voters that none of those scandals originated on his watch.

"I saved Quebec from financial disaster," the premier told CBC's Debra Arbec in mid-December, as he looked back on the past year.

But getting that message out into the province's ridings remains a challenge, Couillard has admitted to reporters.

He recently said his government will turn to community and social media more to inform people about what his government is doing for them, now that the books are in order.

Raising the volume on his government's message will be Couillard's biggest challenge this year.

Will it be enough to overcome the recent history of his party? If not, how will the Liberals shed the controversial episodes of the past?

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée questions the government on the cost of living, during question period on Dec. 6. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Jean François Lisée

The newly elected Parti Québécois leader's first task was to unite his caucus. He appears to have done that, for no at least.

Next, he needs to expand the tent to include more Quebecers of diverse backgrounds.

Before the holidays, he appointed Evelyne Abitbol as his special advisor on diversity. She is someone who is expected to help the party build a bridge to those communities before the next election.

Abitbol is a longtime sovereignist who co-founded the Fondation Raif Badawi pour la liberté. Born in Morocco, she has cross-cultural experience and was an advisor to Lisée on issues of cultural diversity after the party lost the last election.

Appointing someone with her experience shows that the new leader recognizes the need for some kind of formal mechanism within the party to help it juggle the challenging issue of attracting ethnically diverse Quebecers to the sovereignist fold.

Abitbol's advice could also help the PQ avoid self-inflicted damage.

Lisée's flip-flop on the nomination of respected lawyer and Haitian Montrealer Tamara Thermitus to head Quebec's Human Rights Commission showed his party's blind spot.

In the end, the PQ rallied behind it, but not before outcry from Montreal's Haitian community.

Lisée's other challenge will be fighting off the Coalition Avenir Quebec on the identity issue.

In the past session, the CAQ has taken a hardline on that front, trying to position itself as the defender of Quebec values. The party went so far as to release an ad during the recent byelection campaign, stating that the premier and Lisée are in favour of female teachers wearing the chador, a shawl-like piece of clothing that some Muslim women in Iran wear draped over their head and body.

Both leaders issued furious denials. However, the episode showed just how much heat the CAQ is willing to put on the other parties on the identity front.

Two recent polls have also shown a decrease in the PQ share of the vote and an increase for the CAQ. So in the new year, another challenge facing Lisée will be figuring out how to fight off François Legault and his party.

CAQ Leader François Legault responds to reporters questions before entering a caucus meeting on Dec. 8. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

François Legault

The Coalition Avenir Québec leader is breathing a little easier as he heads into the New Year.

The relief came when the CAQ held on to its seat in Arthabaska in the December byelection.

He's come a long way from 2015, when — after losing a key CAQ seat in Quebec City in a byelection race — Legault admittedly to seriously thinking about quitting politics.

Now that the party appears to be hanging in, the CAQ needs to make gains.

Legault would have loved to beat the PQ in the Saint-Jérôme byelection. The mainly francophone, suburban Montreal riding is exactly the kind of place the CAQ needs to find votes in order to win the next election.

But that would be a long shot. The CAQ is still a young party compared to the Liberals and the PQ, and it doesn't have the same machine or the same ground game as the two established parties.

Legault says building that machine so that the CAQ can be competitive in 2018 will be one of his party's biggest challenges in the year ahead.

About the Author

Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.