One year ahead of Quebec's next provincial election, Premier Philippe Couillard has launched a cautious reboot of his government, shuffling more than a dozen chairs in his cabinet while reaching out to an English-speaking base that has long felt neglected.
Mr. Couillard expanded his cabinet to 30 members from 25 Wednesday while keeping key ministers in the biggest jobs. A minister will now be in charge of the province's anglophone community – a new post to bolster the most rock-solid foundation of Liberal support.
The move may be an indicator of the unusual struggle Quebec Liberals face in this election year. The province's elections are usually a contest between the federalist Liberals and the pro-independence Parti Québécois. Liberal campaigns traditionally rely on warning Quebeckers of dire consequences of voting for the PQ and its unpopular independence option – a tactic that energizes anglophones, other minority communities and bedrock francophone federalists. The Liberals have held power for 14 years – minus a 19-month PQ minority government – on that formula.
This time, several polls put the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec under former airline executive François Legault firmly in second place, menacing Mr. Couillard's majority government and taking away a key Liberal campaign message. Anglos are not flocking to the CAQ yet, but Mr. Couillard is not leaving to chance that they may be tempted by Mr. Legault's tax-cutting, anti-separatist message.
"Our team took Quebec's economy from the doghouse to a powerhouse in the country. Quebec's public finances have never been in better shape," Mr. Couillard said in an unusually extended English segment of his post-shuffle speech. "My friends, English-speaking Quebeckers, let me tell you that you are not only an integral part of Quebec, this is your home. Your talents and presence are needed and desired. I want you to know and to feel you are all first-class citizens."
The short-lived minority PQ government elected in 2014 also had a minister in charge of anglophone affairs – current party leader Jean-François Lisée.
Kathleen Weil takes up the anglophone portfolio while losing the immigration file – a net demotion from her former position with a major department and budget. She was also in charge of Quebec's coming consultation on systemic racism that has proved highly controversial in the province. "I've been in the [immigration] portfolio for five years," Ms. Weil said. "It was time for a change. Change is good."
The most significant promotion saw 35-year-old André Fortin promoted to Transport. He was part of a modest youth movement that saw the average age of the cabinet drop three years to 51.
Finance Minister Carlos Leitao, Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, Education Minister Sébastien Proulx and Economy Minister Dominique Anglade all remain in place. The latter three ministers were all involved with the CAQ before becoming Liberals in recent years, leading opponents to say the two parties have become indistinguishable, particularly on economic policy and spending.
The PQ's Mr. Lisée said the shuffle pointed to "continued Liberal austerity inspired by the CAQ."
Quebec's economy is humming along with record low unemployment, but voters are deeply dissatisfied with the Premier and his government. While Mr. Couillard's government has mainly been free of scandal, a hangover from the Jean Charest years still lingers, with unresolved investigations and former deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau awaiting a corruption trial. Voter fatigue with Liberals was demonstrated last week when the Liberals took a thumping from the CAQ in a usually safe Quebec City seat.
CAQ House Leader Françios Bonnardel pointed out that 17 of Mr. Couillard's cabinet ministers served under Mr. Charest.
"You don't renovate a house by putting on a coat of paint while the foundation is rotten from the Charest era," added Amir Khadir, an opposition member for Québec solidaire, a left-wing party.
Quebeckers also felt the pinch of the early years of the Couillard government, which tightened spending, leading to tales of hospital delays, elderly people waiting for baths in seniors homes and children lacking services in schools. In his post-shuffle speech, Mr. Couillard promised to boost spending on all those areas and to cut taxes in his last budget before Quebeckers vote next October.
With reports from The Canadian Press