Philippe Couillard: Hostage to a scandal-plagued era

The Quebec government is proving yet again that it has not broken free of the Quebec Liberal's old, ugly habits

REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Earlier this week, former Quebec premier Jean Charest was scheduled to give a talk at McGill University. Organized by Canada’s Public Policy Forum, the title of the chat was “Time for a Reboot: Nine Ways to Restore Trust in Canada’s Public Institutions.” Given Charest’s recent history in government, the title was surely ironic or an attempt at satire.

Among other misdeeds, Charest’s nine-year tenure as premier saw a marked increase in the use of a scheme in which employees of large companies—usually engineering firms soliciting government contracts—would donate to Quebec’s Liberal party, with a promise that the employer would pay them back. Such “straw man donations” are a way to get around Quebec electoral law, which bans corporate donations. They are also patently illegal. It’s this kind of thing that tends to erode trust in public institutions.

About eight people showed up to see Charest speak. Roughly half of them were there to unfurl protest banners and shout obscenities at the former premier. Charest cut his talk short after 15 minutes and soon walked out of the room, visibly angered.

The Charest government once wrote a law giving police extra powers to crack down on protests that were raging against his government in the streets of Montreal. So it was a bit pitiful to watch Charest being silenced by a few shaggy-haired protesters chanting “corrupt asshole” in a nearly empty room.

Yet given the state of Quebec’s Liberal government, the incident was also a testament to Charest’s enduring legacy. The party has changed leaders and wrestled power from the Parti Québécois in 2014. It has been subjected to electoral financing laws designed to prevent the sort of overindulgences it perfected. “Fortunately, we are living in a completely different context,” Premier Philippe Couillard said, shortly after former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau was arrested on corruption, breach of trust and conspiracy charges.

The Charest-era spirit of the party, arrogant and corruption-laden as it was, is still very much alive. In fact, it is currently choking Couillard’s government. In the past few weeks he has only proven he is less adept than his predecessor at managing all that arrogance and corruption.

Case in point: Sam Hamad. That you probably haven’t heard of Hamad isn’t particularly surprising. He is the personification of his slate gray suits, a politician seemingly built to be ignored. His saving grace, the main reason why he has bobbed to the surface of the Liberal swamp water, has been his ability to reliably win his Quebec City riding of Louis-Hébert with very healthy margins.

And Hamad is a near-peerless fundraiser. According to an internal Quebec Liberal Party document obtained by Radio-Canada’s Enquête, Hamad raised $156,000 for the party in 2009 alone. Couple this with his canny political instincts—he was an early supporter of both Jean Charest and Philippe Couillard—and it’s no surprise that Hamad has run a gamut of senior government ministries: Employment, Transport, Economic Development, Labour and, until last Thursday, Treasury chair.

Hamad’s time in the upper echelons of government have engendered a certain sense of entitlement. When Enquête recently aired a rather devastating report on Hamad’s ties with a Quebec company, and that company’s uncanny ability to benefit from $19 million in government largesse—and how the employees of that company suddenly started donating money to the Liberals via Hamad—he was unperturbed. He declared the report a “wet firecracker” and then buggered off to Florida to convalesce.

The instinct to minimize and bolt for warmer climes isn’t surprising; after all, many Charest-era ministers—Normandeau, Jacques Dupuis, David Whissell, Tony Tomassi, to name a few—basically made a sport of minimizing revelations about their government throughout the Charest years.

The telling, smacking aspect of the Hamad affair has been Couillard’s own reaction. The Quebec premier, who not one month ago said his party had completely changed, allowed Sam to temporarily step away from his Treasury chair position as an ethics probe looks into the Enquête findings—with his limousine privileges and $68,000 extra ministerial salary intact.

Public outrage, not Couillard, compelled Hamad back from Florida to face opposition in the National Assembly. Then, as the listless Couillard veered further into the biggest PR crisis his government has faced, Hamad helpfully relinquished the car and the cash. Couillard called the decision “courageous,” which is a word people often ascribe to superheroes and firefighters.

We have in Couillard not a man who made a clean break from his party’s scandal-plagued recent history, but a politician who is held hostage to it. He rose to power by way of the ancient Liberal campaign slogan, “Vote for us, we aren’t separatists.” No less than 13 of his 31 ministers are Charest-era retreads. He entrusted Hamad with the keys to the treasury, even when the latter’s fundraising shenanigans were some of the worst-kept secrets in Quebec.

Frankly, who can blame Couillard? History proves that the Liberal formula works. For all its multitude of sins, despite months of street protests that turned Montreal’s downtown core into a nightly symphony of tear gas and mass arrests, Charest’s government came very close to re-election in 2012. And the Liberals, under Couillard, were back in power not 18 months later. Its main opposition, the Parti Québécois, lurches from sporadic infighting to barely concealed declarations of ethnic nationalism. Its leader, Pierre Karl Péladeau, has refused to give up his stake in the province’s largest media company; PQ stalwart Jean-François Lisée once called him a “ticking time bomb.”

In short, mediocrity is enough to win the day in Quebec politics. Couillard is well on his way to realizing it.