March 22, 2013

New leader's political brain surgery

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — The new leader of the Quebec Liberal party is offering a gift for Canada’s 150th anniversary, coming up in 2017.

Philippe Couillard won the job on the weekend by handily defeating two fellow former ministers in the government of Jean Charest. In September, the Liberals lost narrowly to the separatist Parti Quebecois led by Pauline Marois.

Charest, who lost his own Sherbrooke seat, resigned and the race to replace him was on.

Couillard, 55, a neurosurgeon in his pre-political life, had served as health minister from 2003 to 2008 but left to pursue other interests. Wagging tongues suggested he and Charest had had a falling out and that Couillard would wait on the sidelines for his chance to succeed him.

Now that Couillard has command of one of the most successful political machines in the country — ruling the province for most of the period dating back to 1885 — he appears determined to take it in a direction his predecessor dared not go (for good reason).

On the morning after his victory, Couillard reiterated a pledge that did not get much play during the leadership campaign. He said he would like to see Quebec sign the Canadian Constitution in time for the big sesquicentennial birthday party four years hence.

For readers puzzled by the fact that Quebec has not inked the fundamental covenant of the nation, I am afraid there is no such thing as a simple explanation. But we can try. Here goes:

In 1980, the Parti Quebecois government held a referendum on secession. Then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau entered the battle, promising Quebecers constitutional reform in exchange for a “no” vote.

The no side won convincingly, and Trudeau launched a full-blown constitutional revamp, including a charter of rights. At the last minute, then-Quebec Premier Rene Levesque refused to sign a deal he says some fellow premiers had cooked up behind his back.

What followed was an attempt to correct that situation, as new players took the stage: Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and Quebec Liberal premier Robert Bourassa. Their attempt to find a way to get Quebec’s John Hancock on the Constitution — called the Meech Lake Accord — suffered an epic failure, igniting a tsunami of nationalist sentiment in Quebec that ushered in a new PQ government, which launched another referendum in 1995, which the no side won, this time by a razor-thin margin.

Since then, the turmoil the constitutional-reform episode caused has subsided considerably. Jean Charest, who had been heavily involved as a key minister in the Mulroney government, would have nothing to do with the constitution, having been burned too often.

Couillard has no such baggage, and though as much of a federalist as Charest, appears determined to right what many Quebecers see as an historic wrong. Others could probably care less, since in practical and political terms, it’s business as usual, whether or not Quebec’s signature is on the Constitution.

Couillard dangled some bait at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has his own constitutional agenda, primarily reform of the unelected Senate. Harper has at least another two years left in his mandate but may not be interested in gambling on such a contentious enterprise.

Of course, Couillard needs to win the next election to make any of his ideas possible. He has been quite careful to say he would not launch a constitutional initiative unless he knew it would succeed. And, he also needs to get his party behind the idea, which is far from guaranteed.

There’s another ironic angle to Couillard’s constitutional idea. That’s because there’s another new Liberal leader on the horizon, by the name of Trudeau, as in Justin Trudeau, who next month is expected to easily win the top federal Liberal job, the one his dad, Pierre, held from 1968 to 1984.

Should the younger Trudeau prevail in the next federal election — a reasonable bet at this juncture — a Quebec premier Couillard would find himself facing the prodigy of the author of the wrong he wants to right.

“Dr. Phil,” as reporters nickname him, may find constitutional reform is more difficult and complicated than brain surgery.

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