The next premier of Quebec loves to make the same lame jokes your dad might make, and laughs awkwardly at them, too.
When Philippe Couillard took over the provincial Liberal Party last year, aides discovered his grip was so limp they launched a remedial handshake plan to firm it up. They also corrected his tendency to visibly tune out on stage while underlings spoke, no doubt dreaming of the tome on the Franco-Prussian war, which he considers light reading.
To put it bluntly, Mr. Couillard, the neurosurgeon who will become the premier after his Liberals won an election victory on Monday that crushed the Parti Québécois, is a bit of a geek. The next question is more important: Is he a leader?
Quebeckers will find out when he is sworn in later this month. While Mr. Couillard will have the comfort of a mandate running until October, 2018, two issues – corruption and the state of Quebec’s economy and finances – will test his mettle in the first few months.
In just four days since the Liberals were elected, troubling new tidbits about party finances have emerged from corruption probes. On top of that, his government will soon have to produce a budget that will comfort debt rating agencies while boosting a slow-growing economy.
Such challenges would test the most successful politicians. And Mr. Couillard is not the slick political performer (Jean Charest) with the folksy charm (Jean Chrétien), toughness (Stephen Harper) or ruthlessness (all of the above) of recent political masters.
The 56-year-old will have to cut his own path with his own skills. A big bear of a man (his wife nicknamed him l’Ours) he cuts a reassuring figure aided by a soft, unexciting voice. He is gentle and projects kindness. He is flexible enough to recognize errors and make course corrections. He appears to put pragmatism over ideology. His confidence is often apparent.
He has a nimble mind able to absorb vast stores of information, such as the 600-page Liberal campaign book he memorized.
“He’s a student like no other,” said Christian Lessard, the former adviser to ex-premier Charest who came back to co-chair Mr. Couillard’s campaign.
Corruption allegations may expose Mr. Couillard’s leadership backbone in a matter of days. The Charbonneau inquiry and the province’s anti-corruption squad circle ever closer to the Quebec Liberal Party.
On Friday, a Quebec Superior Court judge released part of an affidavit showing investigators suspect a former Liberal Party fundraiser and ex-cabinet minister channelled construction contracts and insider information to an engineering firm in return for party donations.
The allegations against Marc-Yvan Côté have not been proven in court. The allegations cover Mr. Couillard’s time in cabinet, but the premier-designate is not linked to any wrongdoing.
But if a Liberal staffer, member of the National Assembly, or party activist is exposed as unethical, Mr. Couillard will be forced to act.
He has promised transparency and intense vetting to keep his government clean. “But we must guard against hasty conclusions,” he said this week, leaving doubt he has the stomach for the Old Yeller moment when he might have to take a long-time Liberal behind the barn and end a political career.
“Being tough is not in his nature,” Mr. Lessard said. “He’ll have to learn.”
The recent past offers other evidence toughness does not come naturally. Last winter, Mr. Couillard got caught in a standoff with caucus member Fatima Houda-Pépin, who refused to toe the party line against the Parti Québécois’s plan to ban most religious dress from the public service. She resigned from the Liberal caucus after days of strife, ran as an independent and was defeated on Monday.
“As health minister, his job was to be a reassuring figure, and he was great at it,” one adviser said. “Our job remains to break the teddy bear and bring out a Kodiak.”
On the budget, Mr. Couillard will have to wrangle a deficit of $2.5-billion while dealing with a long decline in productivity that concerns most economists more than Quebec’s huge debt.
In one promising sign, Mr. Couillard took the advice of Daniel Johnson, the former premier who came back to co-chair the Liberal campaign, to surround himself with veteran economic experts.
“He recognized his team was young and he needed someone to reach across the age divide to bring in expertise,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview.
The next finance minister will surely come from the ranks of those recruits: Jacques Daoust, the ex-president of Investissement Québec, Bank of Canada economist Martin Coiteux, and Carlos Leitao (“The second-best economist in the world according to Bloomberg News,” Mr. Couillard says often).
Mr. Couillard was accepted to medical school at 16, and his precociousness extended into politics. Ten years ago, he had barely won his first election when he was touted as Mr. Charest’s future replacement. He boasted at the time that everywhere he goes, people ask him to lead.
Mr. Couillard now must prove he has the skills to take Quebeckers where they need to go.