Behind the scenes of the CAQ

Once a threat to the provincial Liberals, the six-month-old Quebec party has stumbled badly

Failure to launch once a threat to the provincial liberals, the CAQ has stumbled badly.

Jacques Boissinot/CP

On the weekend of April 21 Quebec’s newest political party, Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ), will hold its first convention. That same weekend Premier Jean Charest will publicize his northern development plans; an election campaign could begin within days. From mid-October to the end of March,L’Actualité reporter Alec Castonguay attended the CAQ’s weekly senior strategy meeting. It was an unprecedented level of access to the inner workings of a Canadian political party. Here are highlights of Castonguay’s account.

When it all began, on June 25, 2009, François Legault was 52 years old, a 10-year veteran of Quebec electoral politics, and finally free. A few hours earlier he had stood in the national assembly to announce his resignation from the Parti Québécois. Now he was riding in a black Audi A6 toward Montreal with his assistant, Martin Koskinen, and all he felt was relief. “I couldn’t stand it anymore, wearing down the opposition benches, criticizing without proposing anything, working the spaghetti-dinner circuit shouting, ‘We want a country!’ ” Legault said to me much later.

Legault’s cellphone rang. Lucien Bouchard’s deep voice was on the other end. “It’s time to take some time for yourself,” said the former PQ premier who had recruited Legault into politics in 1998. “It’s also time to think about your political future.”

For a while, Legault ignored the advice of his mentor. With an M.B.A. and a successful business career—he launched Air Transat in 1986, even though he was afraid of flying—he considered writing a book or becoming a talking head, an economic analyst. But like Bouchard, he sensed political opportunity. Voter participation rates were dropping. The old parties didn’t have their old appeal. Legault saw a chance in this déclin tranquille, this quiet decline. “I don’t want to leave a poorer Quebec to my children,” he said.

He couldn’t go back to the PQ. Some Liberals thought he could replace Jean Charest, but Koskinen, Legault’s long-time assistant, now calls the notion “crazy.” But what about a start-up, a new party without sovereignist or federalist baggage, a party that would change things in education, health and culture—but above all, one that would talk about economic nationalism, public finances and a more efficient state?

Legault didn’t want to be the new party’s leader. But in September 2010, after failing to recruit Bouchard or Philippe Couillard, the rock-star health minister from Charest’s first term, Legault invited 17 people to his Outremont house to brainstorm a potential manifesto. Business leaders like telecom mogul Charles Sirois and hotelier Christiane Germain. Former politicians like Joseph Facal. Political scientists Guy Laforest, Christian Dufour, Jean-Herman Guay. Everyone agreed the meeting must remain confidential. Of course it didn’t. A few days later the story was in all the newspapers. “It scared a lot of people off. We lost potential players,” Koskinen says. When the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec—the coalition for Quebec’s future—published its manifesto five months later, the 12 signatures at the bottom included only two big names, Legault’s and Sirois’s. Even so, before it even existed, Legault’s party was leading the PQ and Liberals in Quebec voter polls.

Events moved quickly. Patrick Lebel, 36, a former Bloc and PQ organizer, was hired as chief organizer. He soon became the new party’s chief crisis manager. Legault likes to surround himself with a team he can trust. He is nobody’s micromanager. He delegates. He hates long meetings.

By September 2011 Legault had 21 pages of legal advice on setting up a new party. Three exploratory committees had their marching orders: one to determine the party’s organization, a second to recruit candidates and a third to decide which ridings to target. On Oct. 24, Legault’s team decided to turn whatever this thing was into a party. “We’re insane to do this six months before an election,” Lebel said nervously. “If this works it’ll be a miracle.”

On launch day, Nov. 14, Legault’s advisers told him to be as vague as possible about the prospect of uniting his party with the Action Démocratique (ADQ), Mario Dumont’s old centre-right party, now fallen on hard times. “Journalists will try to make you stumble. We mustn’t start negotiating in public,” they insisted. Legault agreed. An hour later, in front of 63 reporters and a camera crew from the satirical Infoman show, the French-language equivalent of The Rick Mercer Report, Legault answered more than a dozen questions with “On verra”—“We’ll see.” Infoman had a heyday with the clips. Within days, Charest would be calling the CAQ “the We’ll See party.”

What it had to see about, before anything else, was merging with the ADQ. For the CAQ, the ADQ’s eight per cent to 15 per cent of support in voting intentions could make the difference between forming the government and staying in opposition. The ADQ knew this too. The 2008 election reduced the party from 41 seats to seven. Its founding leader Mario Dumont had quit. The party brass tried, without success, to get Legault to lead it. He stayed in touch with the new ADQ leader, Gérard Deltell, who said he’d be willing to sacrifice his party to advance a few ideas, among which was to open the door to private health care. Legault rejected the notion. On Oct. 27, the CAQ sent the head of the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists, Dr. Gaétan Barrette, on a secret mission: to get the ADQ to back down on private health care. After agreeing on a compromise, Deltell backed the merger. As Lebel and ADQ president Christain Lévesque hammered out the merger, Lévesque preserved his bargaining power by neglecting to mention one “detail”: the ADQ now counted only 2,500 members, not the 13,500 it used to have. In January, nearly three quarters of ADQ’s remaining members voted to support the merger.

Legault had a party and he’d eliminated a competitor. Now he needed money. He was afraid of being demolished by the Charest Liberals’ negative campaigning. “We must be able to reply. My greatest fear is to be dead before elections,” he said.

But allegations of collusion, corruption and kickbacks were everywhere in Quebec politics. La Presse revealed that 46 lawyers at business law firm BCF, where CAQ finance chairman Mario Charpentier works, donated a total of $20,000 in a month. All perfectly legal. No matter. The PQ said Legault would be handcuffed to BCF if he ever won power.

Fundraising suffered under the unflattering spotlight. By the end of February the CAQ was 30 per cent behind its fundraising goals.To fill the coffers, the party would put its 125 candidates on the hook to raise $2.3 million.

As the campaign approaches, the CAQ has faced an unexpected adversary: corporate Quebec. Businessmen with Liberal ties called to discourage potential recruits. Jacques Ménard, the Quebec boss of BMO Financial Group, spent an hour on the phone with Dominique Anglade at McKinsey & Company to dissuade her from joining the new party. She didn’t take his advice. “Dominique Anglade stood up, but many folded,” Legault said, visibly irritated. “It’s the power in the Liberal party telling everyone not to touch us. It’s the republic of the satisfied. We’re shaking up their routine.”

Luc Beauregard, president of one of the largest PR firms in the country, National, admits he tried to keep friends from joining the CAQ. “I’m a federalist. Governing Quebec is governing within the Canadian ensemble. It’s impossible to think you can run a province and ignore constitutional questions,” he said.

From Christmas to Valentine’s Day, the CAQ lost 10 points in the polls. “What’s our strategy? They’re going to come at us with rockets,” Lebel said at one meeting. Legault could hardly ignore the news. “People say I’m vague, but I’ve been defending the same ideas for a year,” he grumbled. “It’s incredible to see the extent to which people don’t yet know what we’re proposing.”

Legault paused, then added, as if to himself: “We have to persevere. The electorate is volatile. The game’s not over yet.”