Conceding some of the recent tensions in the English-speaking community over health and education could have been averted, Premier Philippe Couillard has announced plans to put in place a new government secretariat dealing with the minority’s issues.
And in a significant shift from his past views, Couillard has not ruled out naming a specific cabinet minister responsible for the community.
“I resisted this for a long time because I thought we only have one class of Quebecers, but meeting (them) on the ground and talking to people — we need to do more,” Couillard said in a wide-ranging interview with the Montreal Gazette Thursday in his downtown Montreal office.
“I think we should do more and we will do more. I feel very sad when I hear the English-speaking community believes that we are taking them for granted because it’s not true. I value their support … but they are part of my Quebec, a fundamental part of Quebec.
“What I found out, with hindsight, if I look at education and health care issues, is that we could have detected those issues upstream before we got to this tension and the impression of crisis, which it is not frankly. We could have been in touch way before.”
Couillard stressed that while he feels various ministers in his government, including Geoffrey Kelley and Kathleen Weil, are good conduits for the community’s concerns – the premier also has a liaison officer on his political staff – more layers can be added.
He noted recent meetings with groups representing the English-speaking community — in the city and in rural areas like the Gaspé — convinced him “stronger representation” is needed because, in his mind, many of their issues can be solved with just a bit more effort.
“It’s not a lack of representation, but the desire to create a stronger force, a stronger representation at the government level,” Couillard said. “But because we have so many ministries and silos and organizations, there’s a need for a unification of initiatives.”
He explained the new secretariat will operate as part of the premier’s own executive council, which is a senior ministry.
Asked if he would go further and follow the model created by the previous Parti Québécois government, which appointed a minister specifically to deal with the community’s issue, Couillard opened the door wide. The current leader of the PQ, Jean-François Lisée, had that job.
“I’m not ruling it out,” Couillard said. “I’ve not made a decision yet.”
In the past, Couillard’s answer to such a proposition was always no. He has argued he considers anglophones full Quebecers and didn’t need a special status.
Couillard made the comments answering questions about recent tensions at the McGill University Health Centre. Rumours have been flying of significant structural changes, even mergers, to the MUHC network.
Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, who has been tangling with the hospital for weeks after it complained of budget cuts forcing the hospital to reduce available beds, recently said the hospital situation needs to be “stabilized.”
Couillard said he has heard the stories, and rushed to calm fears.
“We’re not doing any mergers that would not come from the community,” Couillard said. “We’re not going to force any mergers.”
And he added: “Trusteeship is certainly not on the radar. I want to say this clearly.”
But he did not deny the government is watching the situation at the hospital — once a jewel of Quebec’s health care network — carefully.
“Yes, it’s true that the needs of the MUHC have to be re-evaluated, the volume of patients is probably more than we anticipated back then when we authorized the hospital many years ago but there’s also, I think, a need for much stronger leadership and quality of management, which was always first and foremost at the hospital to the extent (in the past) it used to be an example.
“Now it is not apparently as easy as before. So there is a need to act both ways — for us to listen … but also in the hospital, there has to be definite movement toward, ‘Let assume leadership here, let’s be very strict on management issues and let’s compare apples with apples.’
“I hope we can find a way forward because I’m proud of that hospital.”
Yet hospital officials can abandon any ideas that Couillard might replace Barrette as the government’s point man on this issue.
“Gaétan has a strong personality,” Couillard said re-affirming his confidence in his minister. “It’s a tough job. It’s a network that is highly complex, somewhat resistant to change, and you need some kind of forceful personality to move this around.
“I also know Gaétan is a good listener.”
The hospital situation aside, Couillard also was keen to talk about his government’s maligned record and the looming 2018 election. Couillard, who turns 60 next week, confirmed he plans to run again as the MNA for Roberval. And, yes, he will respect Quebec’s fixed date election law, which means a vote in October 2018.
He moved to quash one rumour, however. With the National Assembly set to recess for summer on Friday, an immediate cabinet shuffle — some of his ministers spent much of the winter on ropes politically — is out for now.
“I don’t see this happening,” Couillard said. “But we are reaching the final year of our term. There’s always an opportunity there to make some changes.”
On paper, things actually look good electorally for the government. Quebec is experiencing record low unemployment, has produced a third balanced budget, launched a new Quebec affirmation policy and bagged fresh federal cash for Bombardier and, on the same day as his interview, $1.3 billion for Montreal’s electric train.
In reality Couillard is dogged every week by the past, with media allegations of corruption by previous Liberal regimes. Former leader Jean Charest is under investigation, and Couillard’s past connection to disgraced former Liberal minister Marc-Yvan Côté is a regular subject in some media.
Dissatisfaction in the government is running at about 70 per cent in polls.
With the rise of the opposition Coalition Avenir Québec in the polls, there’s a new fight for anglophone federalist votes.
Asked about the slings and arrows flung daily at the government, Couillard said he learned long ago it’s pointless to pick fights with the media. He said all modern governments are up against general cynicism.
The Liberals, he said, are learning to better sell themselves. For example, how do you sell the new electric train? You tell the people of Brossard they will be able to get downtown in 16 minutes, he said. Don’t tell people there’s a million for education, show them a new school.
And after years focused on balancing the books, Couillard said the Liberals are going to re-focus on the progressive side of spectrum, which he said is part of the Liberal DNA, even if they have a reputation as fiscal conservatives.
Couillard said the government in the coming months plans to table a new, ambitious plan to lift 100,000 Quebecers out of poverty.
“We are just showing who we are, a party fundamentally dedicated to sound fiscal management, economic issues, health care. We have always been a party that has balanced sound fiscal management and social justice.”
He defended Quebec’s new affirmation policy — designed to spark a constitutional dialogue in Canada tabled two weeks ago. He said he is not surprised no other premiers want to talk about the issue. He expected that.
But Quebec and Canada have drifted apart, and “any Quebec premier has to act on that,” because the issue is not going away.
“It’s not healthy for a country that the second largest province and the home of one of its founding peoples has not officially integrated the Constitution.”
And he ventured a new electoral theme Quebecers will be hearing more about in the coming weeks: stability and trust.
“We are living in very dangerous and unstable times economically speaking,” Couillard said. “You need experience, people who have seen what the world is about. I don’t think you give the responsibility of piloting that ship in unstable waters to an inexperienced team.”
He conceded, however, that’s he’s up against a powerful force known as the voter’s desire for change after almost 15 years of Liberal rule.
“This is our main enemy,” Couillard said. “My answer to this is we (the Liberals) have not been around not for 15 years, but 150 years, and we’ve always managed to change Quebec — significantly and we are changing Quebec.”