Robert Libman: As Legault flails, Liberals must move fast

In politics, like in football, you can have a great playbook, but you can’t compete without a quarterback.

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Premier François Legault must be feeling like Chicken Little these days, as if the sky is falling all around him.

Last month’s byelection loss in the Quebec City riding of Jean-Talon reignited questions about his credibility and whether he was lying about the “third link” tunnel election promise. His cynical flip-flop after the result, suggesting the project could be re-evaluated, backfired.

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His major health-care reform Bill 15 is being blasted by no less than all six remaining former premiers. The unions representing more than 400,000 public sector workers announced they intend to strike on Monday after rejecting Quebec’s latest contract offer.

Even his attempt to score a win with his most trusted weapon — using the language issue to beat down anglos — isn’t working. His announcement that to curb English heard on the streets, the government is targeting English universities — deterring out of province students by imposing dramatically increased tuition — has encountered widespread opposition and criticism from all sides, including among francophone institutions and commentators.

Together with the cost-of-living crisis, housing shortage, you name it, it was no wonder a Léger poll confirmed this week Legault and his party are in free fall. The poll shows his Coalition Avenir Québec now leading the Parti Québécois by only four points, with PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon surging ahead of Legault in ranking of who would make the best premier.

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Despite euphoria among sovereigntists, the PQ is likely merely the beneficiary of a frustrated electorate, many of whom feel inclined to punish the sitting government. PSPP has shown himself to be genuine and competent enough to be their most trustworthy alternative for now. No one should be crediting the PQ program or its raison d’être. Support for sovereignty hasn’t moved beyond the 35 per cent mark even in this poll.

So how will Legault react to stop the hemorrhaging? He panicked after the byelection spanking with his tunnel flip-flop. Is he capable of softening his “my way or the highway” approach and walking back some of his decisions? Will he obsess over the PQ getting larger in his rear-view mirror and continue to double down on language? Will he start playing a more confrontational sovereignty-association game of chicken with the rest of Canada to undercut his former party?

An all-out battle with the PQ, splitting the francophone nationalist or sovereigntist vote more evenly, could benefit the floundering Liberal party. And the PQ’s apparent resurgence may also be a message for those who think a Liberal comeback is impossible. The PQ had also been left for dead over the past few years. In last year’s election, PSPP looked like he wouldn’t even win his own seat until Québec solidaire’s candidate, who was favoured, pulled out. One year later, look where PSPP is now.

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When the PQ chose him as their leader in October 2020, PSPP wasn’t well known or considered a star. His presence solidified the party, and once elected had the opportunity to grow and prove himself. Now that there’s a vacuum, the PQ is ready with a leader who has been in place for three years and threatening Legault in the polls.

The Liberals recently tabled their detailed report on how to redefine the party, but have decided to wait until 2025 to pick their next leader. In politics, like in football, you can have a great playbook, but you can’t compete without a quarterback.

These days, the challenges of governing makes winning a third term for the CAQ very difficult. The Liberals need a leader in place to fully capitalize on the CAQ’s current vulnerability. The longer it takes, the less time the new leader will have to build their stature and pull off what PSPP has managed to do.

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election.

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