Que­bec’s rul­ing party takes me­dia hit on ethics

Premier Philippe Couil­lard and his team are learn­ing the hard way that the no­tion of keep­ing one’s friends close and one’s en­e­mies closer ap­plies to pol­i­tics

Cape Breton Post - - Editorial - Chan­tal Hébert Na­tional Af­fairs Chan­tal He­bert is a colum­nist with Torstar Syndication Ser­vices.

A year ago Tues­day, Pierre Karl Pe­ladeau abruptly quit as leader of the Parti Que­be­cois for fam­ily rea­sons and went back to run­ning his me­dia em­pire. A bit more than a month later, Bernard Drainville – the for­mer min­is­ter in charge of the PQ’s con­tro­ver­sial sec­u­lar­ism char­ter and PKP’s house leader in op­po­si­tion – also re­signed.

With the of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion de­cap­i­tated, the rul­ing Que­bec Lib­er­als had cause to be­lieve the sec­ond half of their man­date would fea­ture more smooth sail­ing than their choppy first two years in of­fice.

In­stead, 12 months later, Premier Philippe Couil­lard and his team are learn­ing the hard way that the no­tion of keep­ing one’s friends close and one’s en­e­mies closer ap­plies to pol­i­tics.

Drainville re­signed shortly af­ter political broad­caster Jean Lapierre died in a plane crash. As in­flu­en­tial com­men­ta­tors go Lapierre was sec­ond to none in Que­bec.

His sud­den death left a big void in the province’s French­language pun­ditry uni­verse. Over the past year, Drainville has es­sen­tially filled that void.

A sea­soned com­mu­ni­ca­tor who spent years on high-pro­file as­sign­ments for Ra­dio-Canada prior to pol­i­tics, Drainville is no less a house­hold name than Lapierre.

But as op­posed to the for­mer fed­eral min­is­ter, he spent his time in pol­i­tics fight­ing the Que­bec Lib­er­als.

Mean­while over the year since he left pol­i­tics, Pe­ladeau has beefed up the Que­becor con­tin­gent in the na­tional as­sem­bly. About a dozen mem­bers of the Que­bec press gallery are on the com­pany’s pay­roll.

(By way of com­par­i­son, La Presse and Le Devoir each have three na­tional as­sem­bly cor­re­spon­dents.)

Que­becor now boasts an on­site in­ves­ti­ga­tion unit. As far as I know, it is the only one of its kind within the na­tional as­sem­bly precinct.

No pro­vin­cial govern­ment would see that as a promis­ing de­vel­op­ment. By def­i­ni­tion such a unit is not in the busi­ness of beat­ing the com­pe­ti­tion in the re­port­ing of the day-to-day life of the na­tional as­sem­bly.

Its mis­sion is to dig in places that politi­cians would like to keep off-lim­its to the me­dia.

When it comes to set­ting the agenda of the press gallery, an in­ves­tiga­tive team can be in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion with the govern­ment.

Couil­lard just got a taste of that. He spent the last week scram­bling to (once again) dis­tance his govern­ment from that of his pre­de­ces­sor af­ter a se­ries of Que­becor me­dia sto­ries res­ur­rected the is­sue of Lib­eral ethics.

No self-re­spect­ing me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion could fail to want to match the news – backed by con­fi­den­tial police doc­u­ments – that the province’s anti-cor­rup­tion unit was as late as last year still look­ing into the ac­tiv­i­ties of for­mer premier Jean Charest.

The op­po­si­tion par­ties had a field day. So did the head of the Mon­treal police union. In a ra­dio in­ter­view, Yves Fran­coeur al­leged political in­ter­fer­ence had blocked crim­i­nal charges against a mem­ber of Couil­lard’s cau­cus. That as­ser­tion has yet to be sus­tained.

The fact that none of last week’s sto­ries fea­tured a smok­ing gun does lit­tle to mit­i­gate the dam­age to the govern­ment’s mes­sage track.

The is­sue of in­tegrity has been the Lib­er­als’ Achilles heel. Couil­lard has spent the past three years try­ing to put dis­tance be­tween his govern­ment and the scan­dals that saw, among oth­ers, for­mer deputy premier Nathalie Nor­man­deau charged with mul­ti­ple counts of cor­rup­tion. Nor­man­deau and six coac­cused are still await­ing their trial to start.

The Lib­er­als now ar­gue that Pe­ladeau is mar­shalling his jour­nal­is­tic forces to mount an air war against the govern­ment in the lead-up to next year’s elec­tion.

To shore up their nar­ra­tive they note that PKP vis­ited Que­becor’s na­tional as­sem­bly bu­reau last week to per­son­ally con­grat­u­late his jour­nal­ists on an in­ves­tiga­tive job well done.

What is cer­tain is that Que­becor has a larger-than-life me­dia foot­print in Que­bec. It owns TVA, the province’s largest pri­vate net­work, as well as the news­pa­pers with the largest cir­cu­la­tion in print. It has jour­nal­is­tic boots on the ground across Que­bec.

In the last elec­tion a plu­ral­ity of Que­bec vot­ers turned out to be im­per­vi­ous enough to the al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion swirling around the Lib­er­als at the tail end of Charest’s last man­date to hand the party a ma­jor­ity govern­ment af­ter only 18 months in op­po­si­tion.

But the next Que­bec cam­paign will take the Lib­er­als into un­charted ter­ri­tory. Since the 1995 ref­er­en­dum, their most ef­fec­tive elec­tion weapon has been the per­spec­tive – un­der a PQ govern­ment – of an­other vote on Que­bec’s political fu­ture. That’s an op­tion that PQ leader Jean-Fran­cois Lisee has put on ice un­til at least 2022.

“The is­sue of in­tegrity has been the Lib­er­als’ Achilles heel.”

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