Couillard banks on bigger cabinet for rejuvenation
Liberals hoping for mix of youthful panache and sage management
It was more precision tinkering than a new grand plan.
Premier Philippe Couillard’s Wednesday cabinet shuffle, designed to give the aging Liberal regime a mix of new youthful panache and sage management, is in reality a calculated attempt to put out the numerous brush fires endangering the Liberal brand.
Quebec’s anglophone lobby wanted a greater direct voice in decision-making: give them a minister, Kathleen Weil.
Quebec City voters turned their back on the Liberals two weeks ago in the riding of Louis-Hébert: they get a minister and a half.
Ethical issues are dogging you? Fetch an Elliot Ness, in this case squeaky clean former cop Robert Poëti, who makes a return to cabinet in a ministry created specifically for him.
As for the firestorm over hearings into systemic racism, enter smooth talking David Heurtel as immigration minister, who promptly announced he wants to “turn down the volume” on identity politics.
In fact, if the government could make everyone sleep on command — all the way through to the next general election in 2018 — that would be even better.
That’s because within a few hours of the shuffle, the one that is supposed to rejuvenate the Liberals and carry them through to the 2018 election, questions remain on what strategy they are actually adopting.
Couillard has conceded Quebecers’ desire for change is one of the main forces haunting his government and he can’t campaign just on his record, but is what he put on display Wednesday enough to ward off those demons?
There may be more to come in a possible fresh inaugural address, but so far “Couillard 3.0” looks more like a combination of what has been accomplished and warnings about the need to buttress Quebec for a world becoming more closed, protectionist and negative.
“Quebecers know the house is in order,” the premier said in remarks after a ceremony to unveil the beefed-up cabinet Wednesday. “They also know all the disruptions in the world I spoke of are very real and concrete, that the world, for better or for worse, is changing.
“In this context, they want a team with experience aligned with youth and which has proven itself. They want a team which will attack the real problems. We are this team.”
And in a shot at his political opponents, Couillard added the answer does not lie in “pessimism and withdrawing into ourselves.”
Off the top, Couillard’s new cabinet lineup is a lot like the old one and includes the same pillars: Carlos Leitão in finance, Gaétan Barrette in health, Jean-Marc Fournier as house leader, Martin Coiteux in municipal affairs.
The one place where Couillard went out on a limb was his decision to add six new ministers to the lineup, including putting two greenhorns in charge of the most difficult ministry in the government, transport.
Known as the job nobody wants — eight different ministers have held the post over seven years — transport has been the source of embarrassment to the government; from its secretive ivory tower bureaucracy and allegations of corruption to the debacle last winter on Highway 13.
And don’t forget the looming departure of the Uber ride-sharing service and the future of the taxi industry.
Yet it’s the 35-year-old MNA for the Pontiac, André Fortin, as transport minister and the 43-year-old MNA for Chauveau, Véronyque Tremblay, in the junior transport role, that Couillard has sent in to slay the beast.
Both are first-timers as cabinet ministers.
Job one? Those orange cones and traffic jams, a confident Fortin said later.
“The point of having a minister of transport is to make transportation easier across Quebec, to give families back time,” he said.
Couillard plucked a few other newbies off the backbench for the cabinet, which has grown from 25 to 30 members. Verdun MNA Isabelle Melançon gets the environment job just as Quebec is shifting itself away from oil and climate change is on everyone’s agenda.
And Crémazie MNA Marie Montpetit, better know for trying to get the name of her riding changed to Maurice Richard, lands in culture and communication, which means she is responsible for the French Language Charter.
She was asked by reporters for her view on the state of French on the island of Montreal.
“There are improvements to make, but there are also improvements which have already been done,” Montpetit said tactfully.
Finally, the last new face is really an old face, Poëti, who becomes Couillard’s new cabinet ethical watchdog as minister to the integrity of public spending.
To everyone’s surprise, the one person Couillard dropped from cabinet, democratic institutions minister Rita de Santis, bravely turned up to watch the swearing
from a front-row seat in the red room.
“I am human,” de Santis told the Montreal Gazette. “Of course one is disappointed, but it is his (Couillard’s) choice. I have been a Liberal since 1978 and I have always been very loyal to the party and the leaders.”
The other big news in the shuffle was Couillard’s decision to act on a promise he made in June to give the anglophone community a greater voice in his government.
After announcing last June that he would create a secretariat for relations with the English-speaking community, Couillard added the minister Weil.
Reaction was mixed. While the Quebec Community Groups Network welcomed Weil as a “strong advocate,” former Equality Party Leader Robert Libman said it is “nothing more than a symbolic and superficial gesture for electoral purposes.”
Meeting reporters, Weil described the decision as historic and said she has heard the opposite view because organizations
like the QCGN have been asking for a minister for years.
“I think people see it as a positive message that we’re going to work harder (for the community),” Weil said.
She bristled, however, when asked about Libman’s comments that she has never been seen as a defender or spokesperson for the community while D’Arcy-McGee MNA David Birnbaum has.
“I have a natural sensitivity,” Weil said. “I had another mandate, which was immigration, but I am from N.D.G., which is majority English-speaking and I am very close to the community.
Weil insisted she has always been proud of her Scottish-Irish roots as an anglophone and her cabinet colleagues were aware of this.
“I’ve never been ashamed of it, quite the opposite,” Weil said.
The last time a government had a minister for the community was when Pauline Marois was premier and named Jean-François Lisée to the post.
Premier Philippe Couillard says he has fulfilled his promise to better serve the English-speaking community, naming Kathleen Weil as the Minister responsible for relations with Anglophones during the cabinet shuffle he revealed on Wednesday.
Members of the new Liberal cabinet at the National Assembly in Quebec City on Wednesday. Premier Philippe Couillard shuffled his cabinet in a bid to give it a younger look ahead of next year’s provincial election.