So much about Quebec’s premier-designate makes him the antithesis of a politician.
A loner with zero killer instinct, Philippe Couillard has never met a talking point he could stick to. Brains and determination got him into med school at 17, but he never learned the people skills that born politicians come by naturally. He is overly clinical and his attempts at folksiness fall flat.
Luckily for him, mistakes that might have derailed a regular Quebec campaign – such as his admonition that even factory workers should learn English – revealed him as the Teflon man in an election the Parti Québécois lost all by itself. Mr. Couillard benefited from the “flight to safety” of voters tired of the PQ’s high drama and histrionics after only 18 months in power.
The anti-referendum dynamic of this campaign spared Mr. Couillard the task of explaining his promises, which include a fiscal framework most experts consider too rosy by half. If it’s clear what Quebeckers voted against, it’s unclear what they voted for.
The constitutional status quo? Wearing religious symbols at work? More private health care?
The near absence of any discussion of the Liberal platform leaves Mr. Couillard without a mandate to undertake sweeping changes even though Quebec’s bloated debt and aging population make reform urgent. Language and identity issues are always only a crisis away from upending the body politic anew.
This will make governing particularly perilous for Mr. Couillard, who has demonstrated weak political instincts and a tendency to contradict himself (hence, the nickname “Philippe-flop”) since becoming Liberal Leader a year ago. His rivals will be ready to pounce.
The ability of Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault to withstand Liberal attempts to squeeze his party out, by making this election a referendum on a referendum, testifies to Quebeckers’ desire to make a break with the old Liberal-PQ paradigm. That sentiment may grow stronger if the Charbonneau Commission hearings, which resume Tuesday after a campaign hiatus, expose corruption among Liberal fundraisers.
Mr. Couillard will be helped by PQ infighting. The recriminations, soul-searching and potential schisms that await that party risk undermining its effectiveness as the Official Opposition. But that does not mean Mr. Couillard can avoid staking out clearer positions on the issues.
Last year, he declared constitutional reconciliation a priority, saying he could not neglect “the absence of Quebec’s signature at the bottom of the master law of the nation.” Early in this campaign, he vowed to try to convince federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and other provincial premiers of the merits of recognizing Quebec’s distinct character in the Constitution.
More sober Liberal minds prevailed to remind him that he would only be setting himself up for failure if he tried. Mid-campaign, Mr. Couillard swore off such an initiative. But that comes awfully close to conceding that renewed federalism, official Liberal policy, remains a pipe dream. Therein lie the seeds of a PQ revival.
On Sunday, Mr. Couillard promised to press Ottawa for new deals on health-care funding and equalization. But Western Canada pushed hard for per capita heath transfers and won’t go back to the old formula without a fight. And it is hard to imagine an equalization formula that favours Quebec more than the current one, as Ontario and the West are quick to note.
Picking fights he stands to lose may not be the wisest of strategies for Mr. Couillard.
Indeed, the biggest threat he faces lies not within Quebec. To the extent that the rest of the country considers the sovereigntist threat dead, Mr. Couillard will have less leverage to deliver the booty that is every Quebec premier’s solemn duty to extract from Ottawa. The PQ had been counting on renewed federal surpluses to push its demands for more cash. A “no” from Ottawa could have benefited the PQ. For the Liberals, it could be deadly.
Still, Mr. Couillard starts out with a solid majority and plenty of goodwill. Quebeckers consider him highly competent. His apparent lack of animus toward his rivals is a welcome switch from the attack dogs that dominate his profession.
If he governs well, and improves his bedside manner, Quebeckers could even learn to like him.