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Quebec's Premier elect Philippe Couillard gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City, April 8, 2014. (MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters)
Quebec's Premier elect Philippe Couillard gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City, April 8, 2014. (MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters)

Quebec Liberals already challenged by cloud of suspicion Add to ...

Normal government business quickly shunted aside divisive identity issues as incoming premier Philippe Couillard returned to the Quebec capital to begin his transition to power.

In the grand entrance of the Quebec National Assembly, Mr. Couillard said on Tuesday he will use the Liberal majority to revive a right-to-die bill, to draft a limited secular charter, to bring public finances under control and to ramp up infrastructure spending to boost the provincial economy.

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But while the premier-designate emphasized unity and reconciliation and described himself as calm and serene in victory, a dark cloud was forming 250 kilometres up the highway in Montreal, where the Charbonneau Commission laid the groundwork for more possible Liberal embarrassment.

The corruption inquiry started mapping how provincial government construction contracts intersected with the financing of all of Quebec’s major political parties, especially the Liberal Party, which was in power for most of the time under examination.

No specific allegations were made, but Mr. Couillard admitted it will be a challenge to reassure people that the $1.5-billion more his government plans to spend each year on building projects will not go to organized crime, illegal financing and other rackets, which the inquiry has shown was rampant at the municipal level.

Party staffers and people Mr. Couillard might like to name to cabinet may end up named at the inquiry.

“We will do deep background checks on those nominations, it’s clear. At the same time, we must guard against jumping to hasty conclusions. Just because someone’s name comes up, it doesn’t mean that person has done anything wrong,” Mr. Couillard said.

The Charbonneau inquiry, which resumed after a break for the election campaign, heard testimony that about a dozen engineering companies received 87 per cent of Transport Quebec professional services contracts while their staffers and their families poured nearly $15-million into the coffers of the three main parties from 1997 to 2012. More than half went to the Liberals.

Corporate donations are illegal in Quebec, but the inquiry has heard that using individuals to disguise corporate money flowing to the parties was widespread.

“In years where the Liberal Party is in power, we can see [companies] give relatively more to the Quebec Liberal Party,” inquiry economist Martin Comeau said.

Mr. Couillard said he hopes to use models from the Obama administration and Scandinavia to introduce new levels of transparency to the Quebec government, from putting expense accounts online to publishing accounting information for infrastructure projects while they are still under way.

“These are concrete examples that can restore people’s confidence,” he said.

Mr. Couillard was asked in his first postelection news conference about his plan to have the auditor examine Quebec’s books, which were at least $2.5-billion in deficit for 2014-15.

“We already know there’s a big hole,” said Mr. Couillard, who will likely be sworn in by the end of the month. “I just want to know the size of the hole.”

With his version of a secular charter, Mr. Couillard will try to build a framework for religious accommodation requests, require people to uncover their faces to obtain or dispense government services, and protect the province’s Catholic heritage while reinforcing state neutrality. The parties were united on those parts of the PQ charter before the election.

“We have to put the accommodation question behind us now,” Mr. Couillard said.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he welcomed the “stability” of a majority government that would kill the divisive PQ charter and focus on jobs and growth.

“Now for the next four years, we won’t have the charter or the referendum. So I’m happy. If [the Liberals] have 70 seats, it means something, right?” Mr. Coderre said.

François Legault, who will return to lead the third-party Coalition Avenir Québec, lamented that every recent Quebec election revolved around the theoretical possibility of a sovereignty vote.

“In many ways, the imaginary country harms the real country,” Mr. Legault said. “We need to be aware of this and we need to reflect upon it.”

The Liberal Leader said during the election campaign that he believed the “tectonic plates” of Quebec politics were shifting away from sovereignty, particularly among the young. He declined to get too deep into political analysis or gloat over his prediction.

“At the time, I didn’t translate it into electoral results. But I could feel” the shift, he said.

“A significant change in politics is happening in Quebec, and it’s not over. Politicians better be realigning themselves.”

 

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