There was no doubt in Philippe Couillard’s mind that he was destined to become leader of the Quebec Liberal party and that he would achieve his goal with a strong first-ballot victory.
When the announcement was made that Mr. Couillard had received 58.5-per cent of the vote, the former health minister had proven he was the leader the party wanted in place to rebuild, decentralize and prepare for the next election campaign.
“This was the level of support we were hoping for,” Mr. Couillard said confidently after delivering a victory speech where he pledged to renew the party and attract crucial francophone federalist supporters back into the fold.
“Whether you are federalists of the heart or of the mind, you have a place in the Quebec Liberal party if you believe in the strength of alliances … this is your party,” Mr. Couillard told the crowd of close to 2,500 participants before taking aim at the Parti Québécois government. “We will constitute as quickly as possible an alternative to this government that is weakening and dividing Quebeckers.”
While according to the new leader the PQ belonged to the past with its resentment toward Canada, its division of Quebeckers and its obstruction of economic development, the Liberals have taken the path of revitalizing Quebec’s place within Canada. Mr. Couillard was the only candidate to propose that Quebec initiate a new round of constitutional talks that will allow the province to undertake the highly symbolic gesture of signing the Canadian constitution and take its rightful place within the Canadian federation.
Mr. Couillard’s ambition to become Liberal leader dates back to well before his decision to quit politics in 2008. His departure upset some party members after it was learned that he negotiated a job in the private health care sector while he was still minister. The controversy never dampened his political ambitions, which at times created tensions with former premier Jean Charest, especially when the two locked horns over the site for the new University of Montreal mega-hospital centre.
“Those decisions were taken together,” Mr. Charest insisted, playing down past divisions between the two and emphasising party unity above all else. “I liked working with Philippe. Quebecers will learn to appreciate him …. he will be a great leader and a great premier.”
Mr. Couillard said he has no plans to run in a by-election and sit as the official opposition leader in the National Assembly any time soon. “First I want to work with my caucus and set the priorities of the party,” he said.
That decision may be put to the test sooner than he anticipated should his main rival during the race, Raymond Bachand, decide to step down. The former finance minister finished a disappointing third behind Pierre Moreau after running a campaign that called into question Mr. Couillard’s integrity.
Mr. Bachand’s attacks centered on the personal and business ties Mr. Couillard forged with Arthur Porter. Mr. Porter, the former head of the McGill University Health Centre, faces several charges, including fraud, related to his handling of the multimillion-dollar hospital construction project. The two sat on the board of a mining company, they created a consulting firm together, they were appointed to the Privy Council by Ottawa, and they were members of the civilian watchdog committee that oversees the Canadian spy agency.
Only moments after winning the leadership the opposition parties were quick to demand that Mr. Couillard return to the National Assembly to explain his business ties with Mr. Porter, an indication that the new Liberal leader’s integrity will become a major bone of contention for his political rivals.
“He needs to be in the National Assembly to answer those questions,” said Jacques Duchesneau, the Coalition Avenir du Québec party critic on issues of integrity.
As he did throughout the leadership campaign, Mr. Couillard shrugged off the accusations, calling them nothing more than gossip.
The strength of his first ballot victory was an indication that the party wasn’t concerned about the Porter affair. It appeared more worried about how the party will emerge from the Charbonneau Commission hearings where allegations of illegal party fundraising and the awarding of government contracts threatened to damage the Liberal trademark with public opinion.
Repairing the public perception and building party unity will likely be the two major challenges facing Mr. Couillard, who admitted on Sunday that he will have no time to waste. The PQ minority government will likely be tempted to force an election in the spring of 2014, if Mr. Couillard fails to achieve the ambitious goals he has set for himself in the coming months.