Montreal Gazette

CAQ wants `fewer distractio­ns' in '24

Legault also rules out privatizin­g Hydro-québec in speech to caucus

- PHILIP AUTHIER

Despite rumours over the last few weeks, the privatizat­ion of state-owned Hydro-québec is out of the question, Premier François Legault said Wednesday.

In fact, Quebec will need more workers than ever — 35,000 in all — just to realize the massive investment­s in infrastruc­ture the utility is planning over the next 12 years to keep up with power demand, he said.

“We will not renounce the heritage of René Lévesque. I want to be very clear on this,” Legault said, addressing members of the Coalition Avenir Québec caucus gathered for two days of presession planning meetings.

In his first public appearance since Dec. 20, after which he kept a low profile and took some vacation time in Mexico, a rested Legault appeared anxious to get on with 2024 after what even he admits was a difficult 2023 for his government.

“I wish you all a good political year,” he said in remarks to the 89-member caucus before the media was asked to leave the room. “With — how can I put this? — fewer distractio­ns than in 2023.

“We're going back to our five priorities, which are the same since the founding of the CAQ: education, health, economy, the environmen­t and protecting our identity.

“In 2024 and in the session which is starting (next week), we really want to refocus and be able to concentrat­e on these five priorities.”

Legault and his government ended 2023 mired in controvers­y and political trouble. After losing a key byelection in the Quebec City riding of Jean-talon to the rival Parti Québécois, the government seemed to lose its compass.

To the surprise of observers, Legault brought back to life talk of a car tunnel between Quebec City and Lévis even though he had cancelled the project only a few months earlier, saying it was not necessary.

Later, his government was criticized for pledging to spend up to $7 million to woo the L.A. Kings to play exhibition games in Quebec City in 2024.

That was on top of the government's decision to increase MNAS' salaries by 30 per cent while Quebecers have been struggling with increases in the cost of living.

The new year holds other challenges, starting with questions about the future of Hydro- Québec.

Economy, Innovation and Energy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon, who is scheduled to present legislatio­n this winter establishi­ng a new rate structure for the utility, has given mixed signals on where he wants to go in the quest to increase power production.

Radio-canada has reported the government is preparing to open the door to allowing private industries to generate and sell power directly to each other to make up for the inability of Hydro-québec to keep up with demand.

Stopped in the hall later by reporters, Fitzgibbon was cautious.

“The public debate (on this issue) will happen only when the bill is tabled,” he said. “The rest is speculatio­n.”

Earlier this week, Fitzgibbon said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that if the government opted for more privatizat­ion, “it would be defined by Hydro-québec and be limited to Quebec's territory.”

Legault said his government's goal remains to make Quebec a world leader in the green economy.

The premier insisted 2023 was not all bad, mentioning the adoption of two controvers­ial pieces of legislatio­n: Bill 15, overhaulin­g the health-care system, and Bill 23, reforming education governance. “It took courage,” he said. Legault also noted the decisions his government made last year in protecting the French language.

“We are taking steps to reverse the trend when it comes to the status of French, including in Montreal,” he said. “We are the government of the national recovery of the French language. I am very, very proud of this.”

Legault said he is cautiously optimistic that good things for citizens will follow recent public-sector negotiatio­ns, adding the government chose to “massively” invest in improving the working conditions of employees.

On his way into the caucus, Health Minister Christian Dubé said his priority, now that Bill 15 is adopted, is putting that reform into action.

“My objective is to show successes every week,” he said.

He said one of his first priorities is to catch up on delayed surgeries, a situation that got worse during recent labour disruption­s, and unclogging emergency wards.

His interpreta­tion of Legault's call for more discipline in the government is to “do the things we said we would do” regarding health care.

“We know what we need to improve in specific areas,” Dubé said.

The government is also actively looking for a CEO, a so-called “top gun,” to head up Santé Québec, the new agency that will be in charge of the health system.

Legault has other issues on his plate for the new year.

“Where we have work to do is housing,” he said in reference to the current crisis rocking Quebec and other provinces. “We are in the process of training more workers (to build homes) and we are taking steps with the cities to build more homes faster.”

The National Assembly resumes sitting Jan. 30. The Liberals and Québec solidaire are also holding meetings this week.

 ?? CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Premier François Legault arrives for the CAQ'S pre-session caucus in Sherbrooke yesterday. After a tumultuous 2023, Legault told MNAS to refocus on the party's five priorities — “education, health, economy, the environmen­t and protecting our identity.”
CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE CANADIAN PRESS Premier François Legault arrives for the CAQ'S pre-session caucus in Sherbrooke yesterday. After a tumultuous 2023, Legault told MNAS to refocus on the party's five priorities — “education, health, economy, the environmen­t and protecting our identity.”
 ?? CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Premier Francois Legault addresses members of the Coalition Avenir Québec on Wednesday in Sherbrooke, where they are gathered for two days of meetings. It was his first public appearance since Dec. 20, after which he took vacation time in Mexico.
CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE CANADIAN PRESS Premier Francois Legault addresses members of the Coalition Avenir Québec on Wednesday in Sherbrooke, where they are gathered for two days of meetings. It was his first public appearance since Dec. 20, after which he took vacation time in Mexico.

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