Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard stays positive as he falls behind in opinion polls
MONTREAL—Philippe Couillard finds himself in a familiar spot as his Liberals begin their quest for a second consecutive mandate: trailing in opinion polls.
As was the case early in the 2014 election campaign, they appear to be rooted in second place.
This time around, however, the dominant party is the Coalition Avenir Quebec instead of the Parti Quebecois.
But Couillard, 61, has given the impression of being upbeat in the run-up to what promises to be a tough 39-day campaign, which begins Thursday and ends Oct.1.
“It’s never been easy for us Liberals, it never comes easy,” the neurosurgeon-turned-politician told reporters at a gathering of rookie candidates this week. “We always have to struggle, and fight for what we think we should do. And we always do.”
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More than two dozen Liberals aren’t returning for this election, meaning new faces will pepper Couillard’s team, the most notable probably being the man overseeing the party’s campaign — entrepreneur and businessman Alexandre Taillefer.
Couillard’s own precampaign has had a mixed start with the sudden dumping of veteran backbencher François Ouimet in favour of ex-NHL player Enrico Ciccone leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of electors in a Montreal riding that is a Liberal stronghold.
It had the Liberal leader on the defensive for a few days with some questioning what Couillard’s word was worth after Ouimet said he had been told he would be allowed to run again.
The Liberals will be up against François Legault’s surging Coalition in a campaign in which independence won’t be a defining issue for the first time in 40 to 50 years.
The sometimes dormant — but never really dead — issue of sovereignty surfaced in the 2014 election and helped derail the PQ campaign, paving the way for Couillard’s Liberals to win 70 of the province’s 125 ridings for a majority government.
But if Couillard and the Liberals can learn something from 2014, it’s that campaigns can change on a dime, says longtime cabinet colleague Geoffrey Kelley.
“There have been a number of (political) upsets lately, so I think one of the things you take away is that campaigns matter more than ever, there are probably fewer dyed-in-the-wool convicted voters than there used to be,” said Kelley, one of several prominent and veteran Liberals who won’t run again.
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Kelley says when he first started out in 1994, the polls rarely moved: a Liberal-PQ horse race that saw each party start on roughly equal footing and battle for the 20 per cent of undecided voters.
“Now the whole system has changed a great deal and I think there’s more unpredictability because there are free agents — if you want to call them that — in the electorate who’ll listen to a campaign and it’s important that a campaign be attentive to what those messages are that will attract those free agent voters,” Kelley said.
With that in mind, some have speculated Couillard triggered the longest campaign allowed under Quebec law — 39 days — in an effort to put Legault and his team under the spotlight.
Couillard will campaign on the back of a robust Quebec economy chugging along and with the province’s financial books in order.
He also said the extra few days will give him a chance to outline new promises, with the word renewal often repeated in recent weeks.
The unabashedly federalist Couillard has also played to those credentials — spending the past four years positioning Quebec as a key partner within the federation.
For Kelley, that stability has helped the province’s economy, considering Quebec was a spectator under previous PQ administrations.
“We are completely dedicated to both — we’re not going to abandon part of our heritage of being proud Quebecers and also proud Canadians,” Couillard said.
“I’m proud to be Canadian — I love this country and I want to make it even better what we are doing in Quebec.”
He will also attempt to break another curse that’s befallen the last two sitting premiers: both Jean Charest and Pauline Marois lost their ridings while being turfed from power in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
Some polls in recent weeks had Couillard in trouble in his home riding of Roberval, but he says it’s not weighing on him.
“I’m pretty convinced if I look at my seat, I’ve done so much for the riding, for the region,” he said recently. “I feel pretty confident, but nothing should be taken for granted. I will present my record and my proposals for the future.”