Tom Mulcair: François Legault's reckless war on excellence

People who want to see Quebec succeed have put forward proposals that could help. Too bad the premier is not one to listen.

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Premier François Legault stirred up a hornet’s nest when he wilfully picked a fight with the English-language universities of the province. The massive increases in tuition for out-of-province students were wholly unjustified and smack of deliberate anglo-baiting. Any port in a storm for Legault, who’d just been clobbered in a byelection by the Parti Québécois.

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Legault hasn’t stopped there, of course. Last week, in an unprecedented move, all six living former premiers of Quebec penned an open letter criticizing certain negative effects of Legault’s massive health-care reform. They were sounding the alarm about the imminent threat to the pinnacle of the system: the university hospitals and specialized health institutions.

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These true centres of excellence, like the CHUM (Université de Montréal), the MUHC (McGill) and the Montreal Heart Institute, have allowed us to hold on to some of our brightest and best graduates while recruiting top talent to Quebec. They’re a great success story we can all be proud of. All that could be lost as Legault hog-ties that excellence and puts it at the beck and call of civil servants in Quebec City.

Legault reacted badly to the premiers’ request to exclude some of our best institutions from the overreach of the very same bureaucrats who’ve driven our health network into the ground.

This would’ve been an excellent opportunity for thoughtful compromise. Those former premiers had nothing personal to gain from their proposal. Several are volunteers on some of the boards that would be eliminated. They collectively have a deep understanding of what could be lost if Legault pigheadedly pushes through with his scheme.

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Make no mistake, the general idea of having an agency pull together many of the diverse strands of our complex public health system is, in theory, a good one. No one was asking Legault to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What was being asked is to allow excellence to continue to flourish and not be subsumed in a mediocre slop.

It wasn’t to be. In much the same way that Legault and his minister of higher education, Pascale Déry, recklessly assailed excellence in the university sector, the premier was now in a state of high dudgeon. He said some on those boards were resisting in order to hold on to “little bit of power.” What a haughty insult.

Legault has apparently started worrying about his legacy. People close to him have confided he sees his record as being quite thin. With good reason, I would add, unless you think that a discriminatory law against religious minorities is a great political accomplishment.

This is part of a pattern of behaviour. The current round of public sector negotiations is not going well because Legault isn’t good at dealing with people who dare disagree with him.

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They say that misery loves company. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau muddles from his foreign affairs debacles to the cancellation of key elements of his plan to fight climate change, he should consider reaching out to Legault.

Canada has every interest in ensuring a high degree of mobility for our university students. The feds could easily play a role in helping put in place a form of reciprocity for students from the rest of Canada who choose to study in another province. It could provide a way for Quebecers studying in the ROC to get tuition help as well. But that would require that Legault put a little water in his wine, not something he appears to be doing of late.

So too with the centres of excellence whose boards will be on the chopping block with Legault’s health reform. People who want nothing more than to see Quebec succeed have put forward proposals that could only help. Too bad Legault’s seems not in a mood to be helped. All of Quebec could wind up losing exceptional talent and skills.

And perhaps all of this helps explain why Legault’s polling numbers are in free fall.

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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