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How candidates to replace Charest differ on Quebec Inc.

In the shadows of the Ontario Liberal leadership battle, a three-man race has gone unnoticed. But the marathon-like campaign to replace Jean Charest is heating up with the first of five debates on Sunday.

Unlike Dalton McGuinty's successor, the candidate who will lead the Quebec Liberals won't automatically become Premier. Odds are, however, he will soon run for the job, given the expiry dates of minority governments, which are best before 18 months.

Three former ministers are vying for the job. Viewed as the front-runner is Philippe Couillard, a Université de Montréal trained neurosurgeon who was Health Minister from 2003 until 2008, when he left politics.

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Former Finance minister Raymond Bachand is considered a close second. A sovereigntist in the 70s, the Harvard business doctorate with a long list of private sector credentials raised eyebrows when he joined the Liberal government in 2005. The outsider is Pierre Moreau, a career lawyer who made it to cabinet in the two final Charest years as Transport and Intergovernmental Affairs minister.

Liberals prioritize the economy, and these men are no different. When asked what is the biggest challenge facing the province, their answers on low productivity, shrinking labour force, demographic challenge and innovation gap are rendered in shades of red.

The three men are allergic to political meddling in the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec's affairs and view suspiciously the Parti Québécois's intent of increasing the Caisse's investments in the province. The three wouldn't postpone for almost any consideration the zero-deficit target, set for 2013-1014. They would all lift the moratorium on shale gas exploration in a flash if fracking techniques are found safe for humans and relatively harmless to the environment.

Yet there is one issue where the three are strikingly at odds: the shielding of Quebec Inc., namely Rona. An economic nationalist, Mr. Bachand sticks to his view that the hardware specialist is of strategic interest to Quebec, dismissing the notion that his opposition to the unsolicited takeover proposal by American Lowe's Cos. Inc. was vote-catching. "The way for a retailer to make money is to centralize its purchases. And no matter what promises are made, there is no way a foreign acquirer would maintain Rona's suppliers in Canada down the road," says Mr. Bachand.

Mr. Couillard, for his part, would not intervene to protect Rona since it may provoke a backlash against companies such as Alimentation Couche-Tard, CGI and Molson Coors, which recently concluded billion-dollar transactions overseas. "We are happy to see those deals, so we need to maintain an even playing field," he says. Natural resource companies are a different matter, however. "We need to be very prudent," he says.

Mr. Moreau would intervene to protect Quebec headquarters but beyond a general framework, he would not spell out in detail under which circumstances. This vagueness would provide the government the needed flexibility as industries evolve.

Listening to the three men, it is also striking to see is how closely they are sticking to Liberal party policy, even when they are given the opportunity to distinguish themselves from Jean Charest's era.

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Mr. Moreau, who might well be the kingmaker at the convention, is playing it the safest. His stated cause is Quebec's high dropout rate compared to Canada's. He would make it the Premier's responsibility to increase Quebec's graduation rate of 16.5 per cent for people aged 15 or older – Ontario's rate was 20.5 per cent in 2006.

Mr. Bachand believes the province's biggest challenge is its shrinking work force. He would use a combination of greater immigration and work incentives for older Quebeckers to tackle the problem.

The only thing that he would do differently from Mr. Charest, in hindsight, is to negotiate the tuition fee hike in public rather than behind closed doors, which made the Liberal government look like it was unresponsive to student protests. Also, he is now open to raising tuition fees for students in health-related faculties, where costs to universities are greatest.

Having stayed far from politics, Mr. Couillard promises the most sweeping changes. He proposes to undertake a fiscal reform to eliminate work disincentives. He wants to undertake a state re-engineering not unlike the one Mr. Charest promised in 2003, but failed to deliver. He wants to eliminate labour taxes that hurt employment. To pay for this, he would cut through Quebec's long list of business tax breaks, except the ones that encourage innovation, which Mr. Couillard views as the province's biggest weakness.

It remains to be seen, however, if party members will be swayed by what they promise or by which candidate has the least liabilities. Mr. Couillard befriended and almost went into business with the controversial Arthur Porter, the hospital administrator who left the McGill University Health Centre's finances in shambles. Both Mr. Bachand and Mr. Moreau could be splashed by the Charbonneau inquiry on the construction industry, which hasn't started to look into provincial contracts.

The Liberal leadership convention will only be held in mid-March, and as party members elect riding delegates in the weeks ahead, a world of controversies can erupt before then.

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