November 18, 2011

New Quebec party looks to the future

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — Francois Legault was once the go-to guy for a group of Quebec entrepreneurs putting together a charter air service from the remnants of a couple of failing companies.

Air Transat is now the third-biggest airline in Canada and a world leader in the charter-flight business.

So you might say Legault has experience in getting things off the ground, the most recent case being a political party, one he hopes will soar above what he deems to be Quebec's failing political culture.

It's been 24 years since Air Transat made its inaugural flight, and Legault, deliberately or not, chose the exact date of the airline's takeoff to launch Coalition Avenir Quebec (Coalition for the future of Quebec, or CAQ).

It was Legault's business savvy that caught the eye of former Parti Quebecois Premier Lucien Bouchard, who recruited him in 1998 to give his government more credibility with the province's growing francophone entrepreneurial class. He served as both health and education minister.

Legault left politics in 2009, although few observers figured he was gone for good, after taking a pass on a chance to lead the Parti Quebecois. Indeed, Legault soon began talking up a movement that he is convinced is needed to break a political impasse in Quebec politics.

The impasse he has in mind is the decades-old saw-off between a federalist party — in this case the Liberals, now in power since 2003 — and the secessionist party, meaning the Parti Quebecois. Since the Parti Quebecois's breakthrough in 1976, Quebec has alternated between separatist and federalist governments, with two divisive referendums on sovereignty (1980 and 1995) along the way.

Legault wants to bring to the political table a choice that does not entail an automatic showdown over Quebec's place in Canada. He says he accepts that Quebecers are not in the secessionist mood these days, so he's promised a moratorium on a referendum for at least 10 years.

With the so-called "national" question out of the way, the CAQ action plan includes measures that might be described as distinctly to the right, with an emphasis on making government more efficient. One example would be the abolition of elected school boards.

Since Legault is appealing directly to his former friends in the sovereignty movement for whom the protection of the French language is vital, he's vowing to beef up Quebec's language laws and use a clause in the Constitution to stop parents from buying their children the right to go to public English schools through private "gateway" schools.

On the other, more lefty hand, Legault wants to cut the price of drugs, guarantee access to a family doctor, boost university funding and crank up fees paid by companies exploiting the province's non-renewable resources.

Interestingly, Legault's vision of a more progressive and efficient government echoes that of his former political mentor and boss, Lucien Bouchard. While not publicly renouncing his belief in Quebec sovereignty, Bouchard has been arguing since he left power a decade ago that Quebec needs to get out of its political "stagnation" to be able to move forward.

Also interestingly, Legault's new party is stepping into a gap created by the withering of another party that not long ago promised a fresh, sovereignty-neutral, right-leaning alternative. In the 2007 election, the Action Democratique party, led by a 37-year-old Mario Dumont, came within a few seats of forming of government. Less than two years later, that party was reduced to four seats, and now the party, under a new leader, wants to merge with Legault's group.

Polls have shown Quebecers are very much interested in taking a serious look at Legault's party, even before he's unveiled the details of the CAQ platform. Most surveys put him well ahead of his current rivals.

The coming months may determine whether the CAQ has a serious shot as the future government of Quebec.

 &boldtext;Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at