TROIS-RIVIÈRES — More women, more days off for workers, a no-frills no fuss way to get involved in the party, and constant reminders to Quebecers that they should be proud of their homeland, but happy to be Canadian too.
With 16 months before the next general election, Quebec’s Liberals have starting laying the building blocks of their re-election campaign.
And it revolves around that most simple of acronyms, KISS or keep it simple stupid.
“I have always said we won’t win the next election just talking about our past accomplishments,” Couillard told 400 Liberals at a speech closing a one day party general council meeting here.
“What people want to hear is what are you going to do for the next four years. And we need to learn to talk about concrete things. People don’t see hundreds of millions to renovate schools. They see the repaired school on the corner of the street.”
“We know what we need to talk about (when we meet people). We have to talk about their life, talk about their reality.”
And he had choice words for a columnist who accused him of having a secret agenda to transform Quebecers into Canadians. Couillard this week surprised the country by announcing the word constitution is no longer taboo and Quebec ‘wants in’ eventually.
“I have news for you,” he said. “Quebecers have always been Quebecers above all, but they have always been Canadian and proud of it and they will stay that way.”
The speech, which Couillard delivered standing in the middle of a round stage with no teleprompter and no notes, brought the crowd to their feet, giving the meeting a decidedly electoral feel.
He mentioned a long list of things he said his government accomplished, from super nurses to Montreal’s electric train to the development plan for northern Quebec which is finally taking flight.
And he said Ontario’s idea of giving workers more holidays times is very interesting, a hint that it could be part of the party’s election platform.
He had one shout-out to English-speaking Quebecers too.
“The English-speaking community is part of my Quebec, it’s part of my first class Quebec and your institutions are important to me.”
The long speech came at the end of a council focused on more down-to-earth issues all prepping the terrain for the election. High on the list is sagging membership and how to get people interested and active in politics.
Couillard’s big announcement on that front was that he wants to increase the number of women candidates in the next election campaign, to what he called the “parity zone,” of about 40 per cent.
At an afternoon news conference, he ruled out using his power as leader to designate candidates, but he believes riding associations will get the message. In the last election campaign, 30 per cent of the Liberal candidates were women.
There was some sobering news too. Rumours of plunging party membership are true. Party president Gilbert Grimard broke the news at a closed-door morning workshop where he displayed a chart with big arrows showing the slide.
He called the trend “worrisome.”
Later, party whip Stéphane Billette bluntly told the crowd membership has dropped 40,000 in 10 years. Party officials later refused to reveal any detailed numbers.
But former party policy commission chairman Jérôme Turcotte, in making public a report on party activism in November 2016, revealed the party was down to 37,000 members. He said the Liberals had lost more than 15,000 members since the fall of 2014, a 30 per cent loss.
Compare that to the glory days in the 1980’s where the Liberals boasted 130,000 members, the Parti Québécois 200,000. The likely current number is in the range of 30,000 members.
“There has been a drop,” Couillard said noting it is part of a world wide trend towards less political activism in traditional party structures.
The PQ today claims 90,000 members, the Coalition Avenir Québec 11,500. Only Québec solidaire is growing, up 6,000 members to a total of 16,000 in about a month thanks to the arrival of star candidate Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
The party spent Saturday afternoon debating ways to re-connect with voters and get people back into the fold, approving the creation of a new non-voting party “sympathizer,” category in which citizens can attend political events and receive information without being a full member.
Speaking at the workshop, Couillard said the party needs to tell voters joining a party has advantages because they can have impact.
One day, they can look back on a line in policy statement, see their idea come true and say to themselves, “I put a brick in Quebec’s democracy wall.”
But on their way into the meeting, the Liberals found themselves trying to deflect criticism at home and in the rest of Canada about their choice to re-launch the constitutional debate.
Off the top they said they didn’t appreciate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s snap dismissal of the subject without even having read Quebec’s proposal.
“I found it unfortunate,” Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said. “Mr. Trudeau is (the) prime minister of Canada and as prime minister of Canada, we ask ourselves: does he consider the constitution an important document?
“He can’t just brush aside all conversation or all debate on the founding text of everything.”
Since Couillard presented his government’s new plan Thursday, a chorus of “No, thank you,” editorials have been published in Quebec and across the land. Not a single premier has expressed any interest in the subject.
Couillard responded by saying any constitutional wheeling-and-dealing is a long way off “and (is) just the finish line” for the plan.
“It’s true nobody in Quebec gets out of bed in the morning thinking about the constitution,” Barrette said. “But everyone, somewhere in their hearts, wants the Quebec identity and Canadian francophonie to have a formal place in the constitution.
“Is Quebec just an influence in Canada, or is Quebec an essential pillar of Canada? And right now, we are not. Yes, we feel exiled in Canada because we are not (officially) part of it.”
Treasury Board President Pierre Moreau concurred and downplayed Trudeau’s dismissal by saying the PM was asked before he had had a chance to read the document.
There have been reports Trudeau had not been handed an advance copy of the document, which is almost 200 pages long.
Moreau repeated the government does not expect other parties in the federation to immediately sit down and talk turkey.
“But I think it’s completely normal that a party, which forms the government, indicates what it is, that the Liberal Party of Quebec is federalist and what are our thoughts on this question. It’s an important element. It’s as important as infrastructure,” Moreau said.
“What’s important is re-opening a dialogue,” said former policy committee chairman Turcotte. “There’s no deadlines here, no threats. Talking about the constitution is not a sin.”
But the day-to-day business of governing was not far off the radar for the Liberals. Outside the Trois-Rivières convention centre, a clutch of striking government engineers set up picket lines, blowing horns and whistles that could be heard inside.