Montreal·Analysis

What we've learned so far about the incoming CAQ government

Quebecers anxious about having a new party in power for the first time in 42 years can already draw some clues about what the next four years will look like.

François Legault has displayed both pragmatism and obstinacy

'Even if we have a majority, I have the intention of collaborating with the opposition parties,' premier-designate François Legault said earlier this week. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Quebec's new Coalition Avenir Québec government is still in gestation. The MNAs are not yet sworn in, cabinet portfolios have not yet been handed out, and the legislature hasn't been recalled.

But Quebecers anxious about having a new party in power for the first time in 42 years can already draw some preliminary conclusions about what the next four years will look like.

The incoming government took its first steps this week after securing a sizeable majority in Monday's election — steps that were by turns both timid and purposeful.

In these (very) early days, it appears a CAQ government will move incrementally toward meeting its marquee promises in health and education. Premier-designate François Legault has hinted at openness and compromise on this front.

However, when it comes to the more controversial aspects of its platform — immigration and identity issues — the CAQ has signalled it will take a more steadfast approach.

It may be young, but the government is nevertheless showing signs it is ready for a fight.  

Points of compromise 

One of Legault's chief talking points on the campaign trail was a claim that Quebec's medical specialists were being paid too much.

He excoriated the incumbent premier, Philippe Couillard, for signing a deal that he said paid specialists, on average, $80,000 more than they should be getting.

A CAQ government, he promised, would renegotiate the deal, saving $1 billion.

In these early days, it appears a CAQ government will move incrementally toward meeting its marquee promises in health and education. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

He made different pledges about what he would do with the savings, including financing a cut in school taxes and offering better services in public long-term care residences (CHLSDs).

In the final days of the campaign, Legault told reporters in Montreal that reopening the deal would happen "as soon as possible" after his election.

"It is probably the most important health issue," he said.

But one day after the vote, ​Legault struck a different tone.

At a news conference Tuesday in Quebec City, the premier-designate said he will wait for the results of a study into remuneration rates before trying to renegotiate the deal.

"I think Mr. Legault's position changed during the campaign," Diane Francoeur, head of Quebec's association of medical specialists, told Radio-Canada.

Another key CAQ campaign promise was creating 50,000 pre-kindergarten spaces for four-year-olds.

Legault's reasoning is that it will be easier to test children for learning difficulties in schools, as opposed to daycare centres (CPEs).

Again, he showed himself to be more conciliatory on Tuesday.

He acknowledged his plan would take five years to implement. In the meantime, he is open to testing taking place in CPEs, something the Liberals had proposed.

"Even if we have a majority, I have the intention of collaborating with the opposition parties," Legault said.

"When they have good idea, we can borrow it, all while giving them credit."

'We have been elected with that position, so we take for granted that there is a consensus in the population regarding the wearing of religious symbols when it comes to people in authority,' said transition spokesperson Geneviève Guilbault. (Alice Chiche/Radio-Canada)

Points of difference

But when discussing its plans for immigration and dealing with religious minorities, the government-in-waiting sounded less flexible.

It was Legault's immigration policies — such as reducing levels by more than 20 per cent and threatening newcomers with expulsion if they don't learn French — that caused his campaign the most trouble.

His inability to clearly explain how his proposals would be implemented cost him popular support midway through the campaign.

That led some to speculate a CAQ government might temper its approach on immigration, especially given opposition from businesses struggling to cope with widespread labour shortages.

Any such speculation was put to bed quickly by Legault. As of next year, he said Tuesday, Quebec will reduce the number of immigrants it accepts from the current 53,000 to 40,000.

His transition team also said the incoming government will draft new legislation to ban certain public employees from wearing religious symbols.

Teachers, police officers, judges — among authority figures — risk losing their jobs if they don't comply, a spokesperson for the transition team, Louis-Hébert MNA Geneviève Guilbault, said Wednesday.

Lest opponents of the measure expect the courts to get involved, Legault and his transition team vowed to invoke the notwithstanding clause to ensure it's applied.

"It's a position that we've had for many months, even years," said Guilbault.

"We have been elected with that position, so we take for granted that there is a consensus in the population regarding the wearing of religious symbols when it comes to people in authority."

Quebec premier-designate François Legault addresses a meeting of his new caucus and defeated candidates in Boucherville, Que., on Wednesday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Line in the sand

In the first week of its existence, then, the embryonic CAQ government has displayed both pragmatism and obstinacy.

It has struck a pragmatic line on health and education, which were ranked among the highest priorities of voters heading into the campaign.

Immigration and identity issues were well down on that list. Yet for the CAQ this is where they intend to draw a line in the sand, at least for now.

Not surprisingly, they will appeal to public opinion to support their position. But if sand is good for drawing lines in, it can also shift. 

Quebecers have had long protracted debates about religious symbols before, and it doesn't take an oracle to anticipate what will come next. 

There will be anger and resistance from community groups and activists, and along with opposition parties in Quebec City, elected officials at both the federal and municipal level won't hesitate to get involved. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already weighed in.)

Already, the English Montreal School Board has indicated it won't support legislation preventing its teachers from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs or kippas. Other educational institutions could follow suit.

Whatever the consensus opinion is about the issue now, it may shift amid a full-throated public debate.

With files from Radio-Canada

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