Joly demoted after hurting Liberals in Quebec
Veteran MP takes over her culture file
MONTREAL• When she was sworn in as heritage minister in 2015, Mélanie Joly seemed to best exemplify — apart from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself — the upbeat attitude the Liberals had promised in the election.
Just 36 at the time and a personal friend of Trudeau, Joly had made a name for herself in Montreal with an out-of-nowhere second-place finish in the 2013 mayoral election. She was “the sunniest Liberal,” a 2016 Maclean’s profile declared.
But as the realities of governing have cast clouds over Liberal hopes of cruising to re-election in 2019, Joly has paid the price. After missteps that made her the butt of jokes in her home province, Joly lost her heritage portfolio to Pablo Rodriguez in Wednesday’s cabinet shuffle, which saw her demoted to the minor portfolios of tourism, official languages and la Francophonie.
She was the clearest loser in the shuffle, even if Trudeau tried to cushion the fall when asked by a reporter why she had been demoted. She was moving to “a very important portfolio,” he said, one that creates thousands of jobs. Joly’s “ability to connect with people” would help promote Canadian tourism on the international stage, he added.
That magnetism was not enough to win over the Canadian cultural sector, particularly in Quebec, and Joly leaves with many of her projects still works in progress. In February she had announced a review of the federal Broadcasting Act, saying it was a way to “fundamentally change how we have Canadian content in our country in the future.”
The file that caused her the most damage, and likely cost her her job, was last year’s agreement with Netflix. The government framed it as a good deal that would see the streaming service invest $500 million over five years in Canadian productions.
But there was no guaranteed funding for French-language content, and in Quebec there were widespread calls for a tax on Netflix to level the playing field for homegrown broadcasters and producers.
Sophie Prégent, president of Quebec’s Union des artistes, said Wednesday that Quebec’s cultural industries thought they were on the same wavelength as Joly until the Netflix agreement was announced.
“All of a sudden, this decision was made that we did not understand and that, in our opinion, did nothing to help the domain of francophone production in Canada,” Prégent said.
The Quebec government imposed the provincial sales tax on Netflix after Culture Minister Luc Fortin said he was left speechless and angry by Joly’s reliance on “the invisible hand of the market” to ensure a francophone presence on digital platforms.
The minister’s attempts to sell the plan in Quebec media appearances only strengthened the impression that she was out of her depth. On the Radio-Canada TV talk show Tout le monde en parle, she struggled to explain the government’s refusal to tax Netflix, leading a business reporter on the show to say, “It seems like you are not hearing us.” Paul Arcand, the host of a popular Montreal radio morning show, called her naïve in her dealings with Netflix and referred to her answers as “a nice cassette.”
Joly’s penchant for bafflegab made her a frequent target of cartoonists and humorists in the province — hardly what Trudeau was hoping for when he made Joly his highest-profile Quebec minister.
With an election more than a year away, the Liberals retain a healthy lead over the Conservative in opinion polls in the province. But the collapse of the Bloc Québécois has created an opportunity for the Conservatives to chip away at the governing party’s dominance, which won them 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats in 2015.
Enter Rodriguez, not often described as sunny but a veteran MP schooled in the art of political organizing. He was co-chair of the Liberal campaign in Quebec in 2015 and had been serving as the government’s chief whip until his promotion Wednesday.
Rodriguez is a friend of former Liberal cabinet minister and Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, whom Joly unsuccessfully challenged in 2013. Former Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos told Maclean’s in 2016 that Rodriguez had been reluctant to have Joly run for the Liberals because he saw her as competition, a claim Rodriguez denied.
In any case, it is Rodriguez who has now usurped Joly. He was not available for an interview Wednesday, but in an emailed statement he kept to the high ground.
“Minister Rodriguez is honoured that the Prime Minister has entrusted him with these new responsibilities and he is eager to get started,” it said. “The arts and culture define our identity and who we are as Quebecers and as Canadians.”