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François Legault (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
François Legault (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Sumitra Rajagopalan

CAQ of the walk, third in Quebec polls Add to ...

With an election campaign finally under way in Quebec, François Legault is bracing for, in his own words, the fight of his life. His nascent political party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, once riding high in the polls with the promise of a full-fledged political and economic perestroika, is now languishing in third place.

How the CAQ fares in the coming weeks will affect not only the outcome of this race, but also redefine politics in this province for years to come.

Mr. Legault is positioning himself as the Goldilocks of the campaign – neither federalist nor separatist, neither left nor right, in favour of the university tuition hike but willing to mitigate the increase and, strangely enough, embracing both fiscal conservatism and economic interventionism.

By carefully treading the middle ground in a highly polarized campaign, he avoids being pigeonholed and is thus able to attract support from different camps. It also makes the CAQ vulnerable to attacks from both sides.

Indeed, Liberal Premier Jean Charest recently painted his opponent as a life-long separatist, while Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois accused him of being Charest-lite, in lockstep with the Liberals on federalism and economic issues.

For many early supporters of the CAQ, fence-sitting isn’t the only cause for concern. I joined last fall, when it was still a think-tank, as part of the inaugural group of “40 under 40” professionals to show support for Mr. Legault and his movement.

Our first roundtable was memorable. A sharp-minded Mr. Legault led a thoughtful, no holds-barred discussion on Quebec’s future. He correctly identified our most pressing problems as combatting school dropout rates, modernizing the health-care system and rebooting the provincial economy.

Regrettably, those highly engaging discussions and town hall meetings produced a watered-down action plan full of simplistic bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems. These solutions, which include raising teachers’ salaries, abolishing school boards and tying a doctor’s salary to taking on a certain number of additional patients, might at best streamline, rather than solve, Quebec’s problems.

With impeccable business credentials as an entrepreneur and accountant, Mr. Legault should have been the best-placed candidate to articulate a compelling economic program. Instead, the CAQ’s economic agenda, as described in its policy platform, is underwhelming and confused.

The party, which is all for slashing the public health and education bureaucracies, is prepared to throw the full weight of the government behind directing – and dictating – economic activity in the province.

Mr. Legault rightly laments the paucity of foreign investment in Quebec, yet he tries to discredit Plan Nord, the Liberals’ signature economic initiative, due to the large presence of foreign companies. The mind boggles.

Nowhere was this economic jingoism more evident than over the recent kerfuffle with Rona. The troubled Quebec-based hardware company was the target of a hostile takeover bid this week. Mr. Legault took to the airwaves to denounce what he saw as the continued hollowing-out of corporate Quebec to foreign interests.

His solution? That Quebec’s pension fund buy the threshold stake required to block possible hostile takeovers of all home-grown companies. This level of state interventionism would be unprecedented, even by Quebec’s standards.

Ironically enough, Mr. Legault might find interesting solutions for his economic goals in the Liberal platform.

In the last few years, Mr. Charest’s government has created thousands of new (albeit low-paying) jobs, created a province-wide program to encourage entrepreneurship, opened new trade offices in emerging markets such as India and Russia and actively promoted bilateral trade in several others, such as Brazil. The Liberals have also created a unique incubator facility to help Quebec companies set up shop in foreign countries, one of the few programs of its kind in the world.

These are the kind of innovative policies one would have expected to find in the CAQ platform.

Policy pitfalls notwithstanding, Mr. Legault has already done Quebeckers a huge service by redirecting Quebec’s political debate away from referendums and grievances and toward bread-and-butter issues. Were it not for the CAQ, a Parti Québécois victory would have been all but certain.

And the CAQ has attracted many high-profile players from the private sector. These super-smart engineers, educators and business executives would certainly bring fresh and innovative ideas to the political process.

We’re still in the early days of this campaign, and the vagaries of vote-splitting mean that any outcome is possible. With that in mind, one can only hope that Mr. Legault and his team unveil a policy platform to match their A-team of candidates in the weeks to come.

Sumitra Rajagopalan is founder of Bioastra Technologies, adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University and a writer.

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