Tom Mulcair: Best hope to lead the Quebec Liberals? Here's my vote

The death of party stalwart Benoît Pelletier serves as a reminder there are big shoes to be filled. Keep an eye on Karl Blackburn.

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News of the death of law professor, constitutional expert and politician Benoît Pelletier at age 63 on Saturday was as deeply sad as it was unexpected. 

Pelletier was the preeminent constitutional adviser of the Quebec Liberal Party throughout much of the Jean Charest era. We were colleagues for years both on the opposition benches and later in cabinet. 

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Pelletier was first and foremost a very good person and an excellent colleague. He had a quick wit and a dry sense of humour. He loved debate. His unparalleled knowledge allowed him to bring the sometimes emotional discussions on constitutional issues down to a more factual level. No one in the National Assembly mastered the facts as well as he did. His Cartesian side could drive the péquistes nuts. 

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Pelletier had returned to the teaching of law years ago but his ideas continued to percolate throughout Quebec politics. A federalist, he also described himself as a Quebec “autonomist.” 

The two ideas are not contradictory. 

If you go back to a famous interview in l’Actualité magazine on the eve of François Legault’s first victory as premier in 2018, you’ll see how much his revised thinking was similar to that of Pelletier’s. From his once strident separatist views, Legault, too, had evolved into an autonomist. In fact, Legault openly admired Pelletier and his work. 

Why is that important? Because both Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec and the Liberal party share the view that the best future for Quebec is in remaining part of Canada. For Legault, that’s been a sea change. For Pelletier, it was always clear. 

Onto that backdrop, Pelletier projected a generous and inclusive view of Quebec and Quebecers. 

When Charest’s Liberals lost the 1998 election to Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois (we’d received more votes but won fewer seats), Charest knew a solid constitutional plank had to be part of his next platform. 

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Charest, a former federal cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, himself had been scalded during the extremely difficult Charlottetown constitutional round that Mulroney had entrusted to him. Now, on the provincial scene, Charest was treading carefully but knew a strong position was compulsory in Quebec. It worked. Pelletier gave the Liberals a credible policy to put forward, and Charest never got bogged down on the Constitution en route to a landslide win for the Liberals in the 2003 Quebec election.

As the Liberals crawl towards their leadership campaign, supporters would be wise to look carefully at where Quebec is compared to where things stood when they were last in power under Philippe Couillard. 

A lot has changed. 

For one, Legault’s CAQ now looks to be in a desperate race to the bottom against a resurgent PQ, multiplying intolerant policies in the hopes of holding onto the nationalist vote. 

So far there’s been little to inspire in the offerings to fill the Liberal leadership void. Marwah Rizky — the best hope in caucus, in my view — has declined to run for personal and family reasons. Fred Beauchemin, while capable, doesn’t appear to have any support in caucus, a key performance indicator. 

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Liberals dream about federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne but he’d carry the full weight of Justin Trudeau’s reign as prime minister, which would be anything but a guarantee of success in Quebec. 

To me, the best hope is Karl Blackburn, president and CEO of the Conseil du patronat du Québec, the most important employers’ group in the province. Blackburn is a party stalwart. I’ve known him for decades and he’s truly one of the best people that I’ve known in politics. 

My wife Catherine and I spent an evening with him at an event for the Maghreb community before Christmas. It’s not the type of activity where you would spontaneously expect to see someone in his role. He is that type of person. Born and raised in Chicoutimi, educated in his home province and in London. Brilliant, competent, engaging and a natural.

Blackburn has been elected as an MNA and been both chief organizer and general manager of the Quebec Liberals. He has skills other aspiring leaders could only dream of. Keep an eye on him. 

Tom Mulcair, a former leader of the federal NDP, served as minister of the environment in the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest.

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