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LYSIANE GAGNON

For Quebec Liberals, Couillard is a moving target Add to ...

This year will be the ultimate test for Philippe Couillard.

Some months ago, the Liberal Party of Quebec seemed to be thriving under its new leader – a bright and articulate former health minister from Jean Charest’s cabinet who won the leadership last March. But nowadays, there’s less certainty, with grumblings inside the party.

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Mr. Couillard has appeared somewhat erratic in recent months and many are wondering whether he’s truly cut out to be party leader. He doesn’t like controversy and seems easily destabilized by media hoopla – a big problem in Quebec, where it’s part of the landscape.

And his positions shift an awful lot. For instance, he changed his mind several times over the constitutional stand he planned to take in power, finally saying that he would fight for a return of the Meech Lake accord – an unrealistic plan if there ever was one.

He also changed his position on the Parti Québécois’s secular charter. After adamantly opposing any ban on religious symbols in the public sector, he recently backed off when one of his MNAs, Fatima Houda-Pepin, publicly confronted him on the issue. (Maybe he also wanted to appease the nationalist, pro-charter electorate outside metropolitan areas.) Now, he says he would agree to forbid judges, Crown prosecutors and police officers to wear religious garb, if deemed constitutional.

Unbelievably for a man known as a clever intellectual, he let himself get embroiled in a silly discussion about whether it would be acceptable for a woman wearing an Iranian-style chador to sit in the National Assembly. All he had to do was to brush the scenario away as unrealistic and say “Next question” – indeed, most Quebeckers wouldn’t imagine that a woman wearing the chador would want to run for office, let alone get elected.

Mr. Couillard was absent from the bulk of the debate over the secularism charter. After he solemnly stated in early September that the government would have to go “over my dead body” to pass its charter into law, he disappeared from the scene. The vicious, divisive polemic went on for two months without the input of the leader of the Official Opposition. Mr. Couillard, who had no seat in the National Assembly, was allegedly touring the province to reorganize his party.

In December, he made a resounding blunder, this time about the provincial budgetary deficit. The PQ government had vowed to erase it by 2014, but recently confessed that it won’t be able to meet this deadline. Just as his MNAs were pounding on the government for having reneged on its promise, Mr. Couillard naively mused that the zero-deficit benchmark couldn’t logically be reached before 2016 or 2017. Valid or not, the statement was an unexpected Christmas gift for the government.

Mr. Couillard finally realized that he should sit in the National Assembly. He ran and won in the Montreal riding of Outremont in a December by-election, but at the next general election, the Montreal native intends to run in Roberval, a faraway riding in the Lac St-Jean area, where he moved his main residence – not the best choice for someone who should be where the action is.

Since the next election will likely be held this spring, Mr. Couillard has little time remaining in which to change his image from an indecisive, aloof politician to that of a real leader.

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