THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
The Premier of Quebec is an inveterate tennis fan. Those who have played against him know that he doesn't give away his place on the court and that he plays tough. However, like any good player, the Premier occasionally makes unprovoked mistakes. Here's a look back at the last parliamentary session, which ends today and could best be described as a succession of difficult exchanges for a government that had the ball in its court.
Crossing the finish line of a parliamentary session should be a well-known refrain for a government occupying 90 of the 125 seats, especially when it has not yet completed the first year of its second term and is still riding the wave of its popularity. But events have been moving at a furious pace since the start of the new session at the National Assembly of Québec, and for the most part, the Caquist government seems to have no one to blame but itself.
The price of a broken promise
The decision to throw out the Quebec-Lévis highway tunnel project, despite the clamor from many citizens and the opposition as a whole, came at a time when there was nothing better to talk about. In the Capitale-Nationale region and its neighbor to the south, Chaudière-Appalaches, the promise of the third link weighed heavily in the electoral balance. Bernard Drainville's shuddering words perfectly illustrated the backlash against this firm commitment, which was reiterated a thousand times during the campaign, notably by the Prime Minister.
Members of Parliament, like their constituents, felt cheated and paid the price. Minister Éric Caire was reminded of his promise to put his seat on the line if the tunnel was not built. Others were questioned about their influence within the government caucus, to the point of being compared to green plants.
Contested salary increase
It was against this unfavorable backdrop that the government chose to announce an increase in the salaries of elected representatives. Words are important here: we're talking about an annual salary increase of thirty thousand dollars for each elected member of the National Assembly. No government in memory has dared to open this Pandora's box.
The argument that the salaries of members have only risen by 15% between 2013 and 2022, while the average annual salary in Quebec has risen by 35%, doesn't hold water. The government's decision comes at a time when citizens are struggling to make ends meet in the face of inflation and rising interest rates. It also comes in the midst of negotiations with government employees, who have been told for ages that Quebec taxpayers' ability to pay has reached its limit, and that they must be reasonable and realistic. Union discontent is imminent. Those to whom the President of the Conseil du trésor is proposing alternatives in response to salary demands have taken note of the fact that the increase granted to members of the National Assembly is close to 30%.
The armor cracks
At the start of the session, the government felt buoyed by the will of the electorate, which had just given it one of the strongest mandates in recent history. However, this did not give it the free rein it needed to push ahead with the reforms it did. A harsh reminder that, in the age of social media, popularity is fleeting.
The government's two flagship laws have been critized by opponents everywhere. Bill 23, which aims to make the school system "more efficient". Perceived as centralizing, the education reform grants significant powers to the minister. The creation of an institute of excellence in education to improve teaching irritates and opens the door to acerbic protest from the teaching profession.
Fortunately for the government, the health reform piloted by Minister Christian Dubé was more favorably received. Sailing far from the media spotlight, the Premier's skilful right-hand man maneuvers with ease through the usual sea of contestation reserved for those who dare attack the healthcare network. With Santé Québec, an ambitious and far-reaching reform, Minister Dubé seems to be holding the big end of the stick, a rarity in his profession.
Through this painful start to his second term, François Legault has again and again managed to avoid the pitfalls. He owes this to his proverbial natural empathy. His ability to reach people when they need him most serves him well when things aren't going well.
As he demonstrated during the pandemic, the Prime Minister excels in crisis management. During the major floods that hit Quebec, notably in the Baie-Saint-Paul area, during the tragedies in Laval and Amqui and, currently, as the Quebec forest burns, Mr. Legault shines through his natural humanism and the closeness he quickly creates with disaster victims on the ground. He knows how to find the right words and tone.
Some critics see these crises as a smokescreen for the daily turmoil of his government. Yet the public seems touched to see the human face of their head of state, his sincere compassion for the horror their fellow citizens are going through.
Having himself raised tumultuous issues during the session by "drawing on his reserve of courage", François Legault is betting that time will do its work and that Quebecers will eventually forget the difficult decisions he concentrated on at the start of his second term.
After all this, the Premier calculates that his government's popularity will have time to become sound between now and the next election.