Montreal Gazette

CAQ to face tough questions in new session

- ROBERT LIBMAN

Quebec's 125 MNAS will be back at their desks on Tuesday as the National Assembly reconvenes after a seven-week holiday break. This arena provides a brighter spotlight for the opposition parties, so over the next few months, one can expect the typical theatrics — backbiting, accusation­s and one-upmanship — in pursuit of any political advantage.

Recent polls show the governing Coalition Avenir Québec is vulnerable. With the return of face-to-face combat in question period, opposition parties can pounce — an opportunit­y that Québec solidaire, which seems stuck in neutral, and the Liberals, still flounderin­g without a permanent leader, will try to capitalize on.

Many eyes will be on the Parti Québécois this session, which many now consider the unofficial official opposition. Because of the PQ'S lead in the polls, its MNAS won't have trouble elbowing their way into the daily conversati­on, despite limited speaking time in the National Assembly with only four seats.

The PQ is making the hot-button issue of immigratio­n its battle horse. Historical­ly, warnings about immigratio­n were linked to the exaggerate­d trope that “they are taking away our jobs.” But these days we don't have enough workers. So immigratio­n concerns now, other than the impact on the French language, are being paired with the housing shortage.

The housing issue is more complex than just immigratio­n; it's also impacted by rising costs of constructi­on, poor urban planning and cumbersome municipal bureaucrac­y in approving building projects and issuing permits. But linking immigratio­n with the fact it aggravates a real problem like housing allows the PQ to champion, with impunity, another us-versus-les autres political narrative that plays particular­ly well in the regions.

The CAQ, not to be outdone, has raised similar concerns, with a focus on temporary foreign workers, internatio­nal students and the disproport­ionate influx to Quebec of asylum seekers. Premier François Legault fired off a letter to Ottawa demanding compensati­on.

For the CAQ this session, Legault reiterated five priorities: education, health, the economy, the environmen­t and protecting Quebec's identity. But if they are to start righting the ship, he and his key ministers will have to be more forthright in answering key questions.

With union negotiatio­ns hopefully settled, and having adopted major reforms in the areas of health care, education and language, pressure is ramping up on the government to start delivering. Even if results are not immediate, Quebecers want to know specifical­ly how these reforms, which seemed rushed and improvised and came under harsh criticism from experts, are more than just political window-dressing.

In the coming months, there will be calls for more clarity on Santé Quebec, other than the salary of its CEO. How will this new health-care regime increase efficiency, find more staff and solve ER overcrowdi­ng, among other problems?

On the education front, how will the government's reform improve teacher-to student ratios, dropout rates, infrastruc­ture and working conditions?

And how will Quebec meet its energy requiremen­ts? This week, Legault said Quebec needs workers more than ever — 35,000 just to build Hydro- Québec infrastruc­ture over the next 12 years. He also stressed the need for training constructi­on workers to meet the housing crisis.

Will these objectives conflict with his immigratio­n and identity politics?

Meanwhile, the rise in the cost of living is still being felt and a recession is looming. Finance Minister Eric Girard will table a budget in March that will also require a delicate balancing act.

The National Assembly is too often a theatre of showmanshi­p and attempts to upstage rivals for political gain. Unfortunat­ely, that's the last thing Quebecers need these days. Let's face it, three years before an election, party standings are not critical. If only that realizatio­n prevailed, and all parties for now worked as colleagues rather than adversarie­s, we would all benefit.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-st-luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservati­ve candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibm­an

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