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Politics Carbon pricing efforts are the fruit of Couillard’s interprovincial labours

Ontario's Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks during a news conference with Quebec's Premier Philippe Couillard in Quebec City, April 13, 2015.

Mathieu Belanger/The Globe and Mail

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says it was "remarkably easy" to persuade Ontario's Kathleen Wynne to join Quebec's cap-and-trade market instead of choosing another carbon pricing model.

"From my first meeting with Ms. Wynne, we clicked personally," Mr. Couillard said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "I tried and succeeded in showing her that cap-and-trade has several advantages" over other models. "That was [Ontario's] analysis, too."

The new climate partnership, which the two premiers sealed on Monday at a bilateral meeting before Tuesday's premiers' summit on climate change in Quebec City, could be a sign of things to come as Mr. Couillard moves to assert his leadership on the national stage.

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(Explainer: What a cap-and-trade system would do)

His star turn as the instigator and host of Tuesday's gathering is the fruit of his year-long effort to build interprovincial alliances instead of striking the isolationist pose often favoured by past Quebec premiers seeking to assert the province's distinctiveness.

"I don't just want to be at the table with my partners from the other provinces," Mr. Couillard said. "I want to be active at the table, which is a role that corresponds with Quebec's historic role as a founding member of this country."

His predecessor as Liberal premier, Jean Charest, described himself as the "defender of Quebec's interests" in taking on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government over everything from cuts to arts funding to the fiscal imbalance. The approach proved a vote-getter. Mr. Couillard also sees it as his duty to defend Quebec's priorities and prerogatives. But despite disagreeing with the Harper government on a host of issues, including its pending anti-terrorism legislation, gun-control policies and calculation of federal cash transfers, the Premier has so far refrained from exploiting such conflicts to boost his own political fortunes at home.

A deliberative leader who spurns theatrics, Mr. Couillard is not one to feign indignation or outrage for the cameras. "That's not my nature," he explained. "I'm someone who has perhaps a calm demeanour. I express [myself] with data and facts."

That is why there will be no finger-pointing at Tuesday's summit – not at Ottawa nor at Saskatchewan or Alberta, by far the most carbon-intensive provinces on a per-capita basis. "It's not about setting an example or preaching to anyone about anything," Mr. Couillard said of the summit. "It's about creating the best forum for each province to explain its actions, perceptions and way of doing things" with the aim of arriving at an understanding of the costs of failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Holding the climate-change summit provides Mr. Couillard with an opportunity to burnish his credentials on a topic close to Quebeckers' hearts. He will need that goodwill as his majority government embarks on perhaps the most crucial year of its mandate. It aims to hold program spending to a 1.5-per-cent increase in 2015-16, allowing the province to balance its books for the first time since the recession. But that will not be achieved without deep cuts to many programs, including health and education.

A weekend Léger Marketing poll conducted for Le Devoir shows broad public support for many of the government's budget measures, including reducing the size of the public service and scaling up daycare fees to as much as $15 per day (from $7.30) based on family income. The same poll also showed widespread rejection of ongoing strikes by a minority of students at junior colleges and universities, who are protesting against Mr. Couillard's austerity budget and Quebec's continued dependence on hydrocarbons.

But overall dissatisfaction toward the government is high, at 61 per cent. Voters disapprove of Mr. Couillard's pending health-care reforms, which include merging several regional health agencies into huge, centralized bodies and forcing doctors to meet patient quotas. The government also faces negotiations to renew public-sector collective agreements that expired on March 31. Mr. Couillard aims to freeze salaries for the next two years and offer below-inflation increases thereafter. If organized labour joins the students in renewed protests this fall, the government could be forced to backtrack on its budget plans.

Mr. Couillard has not had to face an effective opposition so far. But that could change after the Parti Québécois elects a new leader next month. Quebecor controlling shareholder and rookie MNA Pierre Karl Péladeau appears to be a shoo-in, and polls have shown a Péladeau-led PQ surging ahead of the Liberals.

In an interview with La Presse, Mr. Péladeau pointed to Canadian federalism as an obstacle to Quebec making its own decisions on energy matters. His PQ rival's opposition to TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline promises to make it increasingly difficult for Mr. Couillard to develop a position that reconciles his desire for nation-building with widespread opposition toward the project in Quebec.

"I am careful on that file," Mr. Couillard said of the $12-billion pipeline that would move oil sands crude through Quebec to New Brunswick. "I see the necessity for the oil to circulate. But not at any price."

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