Premier Philippe Couillard keeps calling for a polite new era in Quebec politics, but some of his own ministers appear to be ignoring his entreaties.
Christine St-Pierre, a high-profile Liberal minister, is facing a potential lawsuit in the latest round of mud-slinging that would have fit right in during the nasty election campaign the Liberals won in April.
Former Parti Québécois minister and potential party leadership contender Jean-François Lisée threatened to sue Ms. St-Pierre Tuesday after she suggested he may have improperly used public funds while in government to visit his family in France. She offered no evidence, other than pointing out Mr. Lisée had managed to pass through Paris during 11 of his 15 missions abroad.
"There's one unwritten rule in Quebec politics and media: You don't touch the family life of elected officials. Ms. St-Pierre blew through this red line, turning my family into a matter of public debate," Mr. Lisée said. "It's reprehensible."
Mr. Couillard won a majority government on April 8, promising to move away from the hard-nosed tactics of the campaign, calling on the opposition to try the "respectful and calm" approach he intended to use in government. Instead, his own ministers have been hammering opponents, and not always with a respectful tone.
Mr. Couillard had to intervene last week after his Health Minister, Gaétan Barrette, told Claude Castonguay, the Liberal father of Quebec's medicare system, to go away and enjoy his retirement after he criticized minister Yves Bolduc. Mr. Bolduc, a fellow physician, had taken more than $200,000 in bonuses from the medical system for taking on new patients during 18 months in opposition, and then abandoned the patients once the Liberals won power.
Mr. Castonguay, who had demanded Mr. Bolduc resign, described Mr. Barrette as a "vulgar character" for telling him to get lost. Mr. Barrette later admitted he went too far. Mr. Couillard repeated his call for calm, and acknowledged Mr. Bolduc made an error in judgment in taking the bonus money.
Mr. Barrette, the former head of the Quebec federation of medical specialists, was known for a brash, outspoken style long before he ran for office. Mr. Lisée, a former PQ strategist, is often caricatured as arrogant and is also among the more polarizing figures in Quebec politics.
Ms. St-Pierre has had to apologize twice since 2012 for insulting remarks. Mr. Lisée and Ms. St-Pierre have long been bitter political enemies.
In a statement late Tuesday, the minister said she is asking legitimate questions about Mr. Lisée's travel, and had no intention of dragging his private life into the political scene. "He's feeding defamatory commentary that I never made," Ms. St-Pierre said.
Mr. Lisée's wife, Sandrine Perrot, is a French political scientist who splits her time between family homes in Chartres, 90 minutes from Paris, and Montreal. "We've become experts at reconciling living in two countries without it costing taxpayers one cent," Mr. Lisée said, adding he took pains to reimburse extra costs for family time such as paying for government chauffeurs or special airline routing.
Ms. Perrot was at his side Tuesday. "Neither of us would accept that public funds be used for our private life," Ms. Perrot said. "I am profoundly shocked that our private life would be used this way."
The Ministry of International Relations is auditing Mr. Lisée's travel, but an official told Le Devoir that he covered extra costs for personal visits.
Mr. Lisée took 15 trips abroad at a cost of $214,894, according to documents obtained by La Presse. Mr. Lisée produced travel records from his Liberal predecessors showing they travelled about as much as he did.