Quebec MNAs prepare for political showdown in lead-up to October election

The Quebec National Assembly kicks off its last session before the Oct. 1 election today — and straight out of the gate, Premier Philippe Couillard is warning that it is going to be busy.

Last legislative session promises to be supercharged, as all parties aim to score political points

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says he plans to govern actively until the very end of his mandate. Quebecers go to the polls Oct. 1, 2018. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Quebec National Assembly kicks off its last session before the Oct. 1 election today — and straight out of the gate, Premier Philippe Couillard is warning that it is going to be busy.

Quebec's lawmakers have 47 days to propose new laws, pass attention-grabbing motions and make pithy quips in the hallways before the summer break. Then, on Aug. 29, the election campaign officially begins.

Couillard, for one, plans to make use of every opportunity.

"We still have a lot to do," he said in a news conference Thursday, flanked by his popular finance minister, Carlos Leitão, at the end of a two-day Liberal strategy session.

"We will govern actively, right up until the last day of our mandate."

To underscore the point that they were rolling up their sleeves, they and almost all the men in the Liberal caucus doffed their ties and left the top buttons of their shirts undone.

Emphasizing the point that they're getting down to some hard work, Philippe Couillard, right, Finance Minister Carlos Leitão and the other men in the Liberal caucus did away with their ties and loosened their shirt collars before meeting reporters on Feb. 1. (CBC)

With a healthy economy and plenty of money in the provincial coffers, it might appear that the ruling Liberals have a chance to relax.

The Couillard government does have one last  budget to unveil this spring.

After last year's emphasis on income and school tax cuts, the Liberals are indicating they will now shift their emphasis toward solving transportation and traffic problems, implementing their anti-poverty plan and improving the quality of life for Quebec families.

"It's time, oxygen, breathing room — not just financial, but also in their daily lives: that's what families want," Couillard said Thursday.

However, the ruling party still has to coax its existing bills through the legislature, many of which have the potential to ruffle feathers. Those include changes to the province's road safety laws, the reorganization of the school tax system, and the smooth introduction of legal cannabis to Quebec society.

pit bull ban also lingers on the National Assembly's list of proposed legislation, although that bill has gone nowhere since it was introduced last April.

3-way battleground

The Liberals' political challengers are also eager to land a few blows against the government.

However, the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec are also competing against each other, especially on questions of identity and language.

Those issues are often seen as the Quebec Liberal Party's Achilles heel, since the party must strike a delicate balance between not offending its multicultural base in Montreal and keeping onside francophone voters in the regions in ridings it's holding onto by its fingernails.

CAQ Leader François Legault is promising to cut taxes more deeply than the Liberals. The CAQ may also put an accent on identity issues in the assembly's last session. (CBC)

Last session, the Couillard government made two attempts to get ahead of the PQ and the CAQ on those issues, passing Bill 62, a ban on giving and receiving public services while wearing a face covering such as the Islamic niqab, and by supporting a motion against the use of the common Montreal greeting  "Bonjour-Hi."

Both sparked an angry backlash.

The CAQ and the PQ could be expected to spearhead similar issues. For the Parti Québécois, a hard-hitting identity or language controversy invigorates supporters and attracts headlines.

At the same time, the CAQ will try to siphon away votes from the PQ by championing the same issues.

The three parties are also preparing to stake out their positions on the right-versus-left continuum, with the CAQ committing to further tax cuts, while the Parti Québécois promises to strengthen government services.

Who to watch

Rank-and-file MNAs are likely to be both a help and a hazard for their parties in the final stretch to Oct. 1.

Gerry Sklavounos, kicked out of the Liberal caucus after a sexual assault accusation for which he was not charged, still represents the riding of Laurier-Dorion. He could give the Liberals a prolonged political hangover if he decides to try to hold onto his seat in the coming election.

Former Liberal Pierre Paradis, who was also accused of sexual misconduct but not charged, is in a similar situation in the riding of Brome-Missisquoi.

UPAC could also still potentially lay charges against Chomedey MNA Guy Ouellette, who was arrested last October as part of an investigation into police documents leaked to the media.

Quebec's anti-corruption squad, UPAC, arrested MNA Guy Ouellette last October. He has still not been charged. However, UPAC has said charges could still be pending. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette could cause another kind of problem for the reigning Liberals with his habit of repeatedly clashing with other players in the health care sector. Opposition parties have been making the controversial minister a centrepiece in their campaigns against the government.

Meanwhile on the opposition benches, Gaétan Lelièvre, once a Parti Québécois minister, has been sitting as an independent for the riding of Gaspé for nearly a year because of conflict of interest questions. Should he choose to run again, he could also drag down his former party in one of its few safe seats.

Quebecers have been learning in recent weeks not to rule out the role former PQ leader and media magnate Pierre Karl Peladeau could play this election year. PKP continues to throw in his two cents on Quebec's political affairs via his Twitter account and has been openly toying with the idea of a return to politics.

Any of these personalities could continue to draw headlines away from the CAQ, but it's unlikely leader François Legault has any complaints about that.

The CAQ has managed to avoid serious scrutiny, even though it has been at the top of the polls for months.