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Phillipe Couillard gives a thumbs-up as he announces his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec Liberals in Montreal on Wednesday. (PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Phillipe Couillard gives a thumbs-up as he announces his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec Liberals in Montreal on Wednesday. (PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Regrets haunt Couillard on first day of Quebec Liberal leadership bid Add to ...

The man who is considered the odds-on favourite in the Quebec Liberal leadership race launched his campaign with an unusual expression of regret.

Philippe Couillard, the former health minister who left politics in 2008 to take a lucrative job in private health-care finance, admits he could have done more to disperse the cloud that still hangs over him from that job transition.

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It emerged shortly after Mr. Couillard’s departure that he was in talks with the private health-care investment firm, Persistence Capital Partners (PCP), for two months before he stepped down as health minister in 2008.

When Mr. Couillard left government, he gave few interviews and mostly reacted with anger as controversy boiled over his sudden move toward private health care. Dark stories circulated about how he had signed decrees that helped private health-care providers just as he departed.

While the ethics commissioner cleared him of any breach and the government executive committee had given him the go-ahead to launch negotiations, the departure has hung over him.

Mr. Couillard admitted his departure after five years as health minister left a “negative perception,” adding that he regrets not explaining more clearly at the time.

“I would never run if I didn’t think my integrity was perfectly intact,” Mr. Couillard said. “I never put myself in a conflict situation. That investment company has never had any business dealings with the government of Quebec.”

A former neurosurgeon, Mr. Couillard, 55, is the third man to enter the race, which has started as a relatively cordial affair among three former cabinet colleagues, including former finance minister Raymond Bachand and Pierre Moreau, a former government whip and transport minister.

However, Mr. Moreau has already hinted at some of the lines of attack that will divide the three men. Mr. Moreau, who launched his campaign Monday, noted that, unlike Mr. Couillard, he stuck with the government throughout its nearly 10 years in office.

Like Mr. Couillard, Mr. Moreau also brandished his lifelong “resolutely federalist” credentials. Mr. Bachand worked for René Levesque and Quebec sovereignty in the 1980 referendum.

“I’m proud of being Liberal and I’ve always been there, good times or bad times,” Mr. Moreau said in one of the early shots across the bow. The Liberals will be choosing their leader next spring in an old-fashioned delegate convention, so appealing to internal partly loyalty will be important.

Mr. Couillard also faced questions about his friendship and onetime business association with Arthur Porter, the former head of the McGill University Hospital Centre who negotiated a deal with SNC-Lavalin to construct a new hospital. The billion-dollar contract is now under investigation by the province’s anti-corruption squad. Media reports suggest SNC may have spent millions of dollars in unauthorized payments to set up the deal.

Dr. Porter, who resigned last year and took a new job in the Caribbean, has not responded to the allegations. Mr. Couillard said he hasn’t seen Dr. Porter since his farewell last year, which he said was attended by “all of Montreal.”

“I’m just extremely surprised by what we’re hearing about the MUHC,” he said. “Surprised, but also disappointed… I want to know more and hope that the investigation goes on and we get the full story.”

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