QUEBEC — It started with an embarrassing leak about a former premier and ended with a high-profile resignation.
In politics or otherwise, that’s called having a bad week, and Quebec’s Liberals know it only too well.
A Chapleau cartoon on the La Presse tablet showing an ashen faced Premier Philippe Couillard standing alone in the legislature surrounded by tiny ghosts of his predecessor, Charest, said it all.
The Liberals spent the week on the defensive; forced repeatedly to fend off allegations of past party misdeeds – one columnist referred to them as dangerous liaisons – and efforts by the opposition parties to connect the dots to the government of today.
“We have nothing to hide,” Premier Philippe Couillard snapped late Wednesday as a routine committee examination of the executive’s annual budget turned into a free-for-all for an opposition fuelled by fresh scandal reports produced by the Journal de Montréal and TVA media outlets.
It was not a pretty sight a few minutes later when Treasury Board President Pierre Moreau stomped into the hall and ripped into media reports that former Liberal moneyman Marc Bibeau — under investigation by the anti-corruption unit UPAC — had privileged access to the premier’s powerful chief of staff Jean-Louis Dufresne.
“It’s not for a 30-second television clip that I am going to let anyone taint a person’s reputation,” Moreau said, calling the report “inaccurate and fallacious.”
Couillard again challenged anyone to show a single example of a ethical transgression since he took over the party from Charest, but it’s the past that is causing him more trouble.
Liberal MNAs in the caucus are increasingly tense as the 2018 general election moves closer, while longtime political observers say privately they had rarely seen such a climate of suspicion in the legislature and the opposition parties so aggressive.
On Thursday, after a week filled with innuendo and blockbuster media reports which included a leak of a highly sensitive file on Charest and Bibeau which has UPAC and the justice department reeling, the soup boiled over in the form of comments made by Yves Francoeur, president of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, on 98.5 FM radio.
Francoeur alleged two Liberal MNAs — one of whom is still in office — were the object of a full-scale police investigation in 2012 that should have gone to court but never did because someone is blocking them.
He gives no names but said someone in the justice system told him the cases were on a shelf because they were politicians.
Commenting on recent leaks of internal documents from Quebec’s anti-corruption squad detailing surveillance of Charest and Bibeau, Francoeur said the leaking of sensitive information was a symptom of a malaise within law enforcement ranks created by the possibility their findings could be obstructed.
“We certainly have the impression there is a Liberal immunity in our institutions,” Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée commented Thursday.
The Liberals’ counterspin is that if they were considered as untouchable as the opposition and Francoeur asserts, people like former Liberal deputy-premier Nathalie Normandeau and former Liberal organizer Marc-Yvan Côté would not be facing criminal charges today.
Such fear-mongering by the opposition just fuels cynicism in Quebec’s institutions, they said.
“If he does have serious information about the allegations he’s making, it is his duty to bring that to justice,” Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux responded as his scheduled news conference on Quebec’s police pants bill — tabled Thursday — got sidetracked.
The fact Francoeur’s outburst came on the same day as the uniform bill landed escaped nobody.
But respected Liberal backbencher Robert Poëti, a former police officer, described Francoeur’s comments as troubling coming from a person he considers credible, and the story took off. Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Nathalie Roy immediately demanded Francoeur be hauled in to testify before a parliamentary committee.
By pure coincidence, the province’s chief crown prosecutor, Annick Murphy, arrived in the legislature Thursday for her annual encounter with the justice committee.
In her testimony she rapidly quashed Francoeur’s story. If such a file exists, she has never laid eyes on it, she said.
She also handed the Liberal government a lifeline on allegations the crown is somehow in cahoots with the government.
“Never, no prosecutor would ever accept to take a decision out of complacency or servility,” the tough-talking Murphy told the committee. “I believe I have all the independence I need to do the job.”
Murphy went further, saying she recently told her prosecutors to imagine themselves “in a submarine,” away from the all the media brouhaha and any possible influences.
If you’re a Liberal these days, that idea might not seem too bad, but with the legislature sitting until mid-June there is no escaping the slings and arrows of the media and opposition.
“Mr. Couillard has tried everything to put dykes between him and Jean Charest’s record,” Lisée said at one point this week. “But these dykes are collapsing one by one.”
On Thursday, after resisting all week, the government grudgingly agreed to ask the province’s auditor-general, Guylaine Leclerc, look into a series of government space rental contracts with Bibeau’s firms.
Meanwhile, all eyes now will be on UPAC, suddenly under pressure to get on with the investigations they are handling or leave the individuals under the police microscope in peace.
Which leads us to the last event of the week: the resignation Thursday of Louis-Hébert MNA and former cabinet minister Sam Hamad.
Although it happened in a week where the Liberals were rocked by controversy, Hamad’s decision to leave politics has been in the works a long time because he has concluded his chances of getting back into the Liberal cabinet are nil.
Where it represents a blow to the Liberals is that it will spark a by-election in the riding, which is in the Quebec City region, a stronghold for the CAQ.
Watch the CAQ turn the by-election into a referendum on government ethics.
What is the best option for the Liberals? La Presse reported Thursday that Couillard’s team has a plan to re-boot the party before the election, which includes a cabinet shuffle after the house recesses in June, and a new inaugural address.