Robert Libman: Nothing negative seems to stick to François Legault

Riding high and seemingly unstoppable in October, the premier has been deft at turning situations to his advantage.

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Premier Francois Legault is making it look too easy. He is playing other politicians, other levels of government, the media and the electorate like a fiddle. His choices of words and ability to simplify messages help him connect with the public. Federal and municipal politicians seem fearful of crossing him and the opposition has had trouble pinning him in any corner. Nothing negative seems to stick to him.

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With an election this October, controlling optics is critical. Legault has been extremely deft at handling certain situations that could trip him up, and turning them to his political advantage.

A case in point is the proposed REM extension to the east end.

Legault has been behind the project, which was being criticized by regional transit planners and in the media, while Mayor Valérie Plante was raising concerns about its urban integration and insisting on a seat at the table.

On Monday, previous tensions were set aside as Legault and Plante announced that Quebec and Montreal, working together, will take over the management of the project from CDPQ-Infra, which had backed out. Amid the mutual praise, there was no mention of what the price tag might balloon to, how their visions of urban integration could be reconciled or a reasonable timeline. His government brushed aside the fact that the builder will be compensated up to $100 million.

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A disaster that could have become an election issue was averted. Legault can spout during the campaign about how his government is listening to citizens and working with Montreal to deliver an important transit connection to the east end in a more socially acceptable way.

A couple of weeks earlier, the government had announced a redesign of the controversial grandiose underwater-tunnel project, the so-called third link connecting Lévis to Quebec City, citing the need for a more economical solution. Transport Minister François Bonnardel promised studies for the new version. It was another case of buying time for a polarizing project that will probably never see the light of day. Yet, in the election campaign he can now play both sides.

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Last weekend, Legault was beaming about Quebec “winning the battle” in landing the new bio-manufacturing plant that pharmaceutical company Moderna will build in the Montreal area. The optics are very positive, with the creation of hundreds of jobs. But details were not disclosed about the agreement between Moderna and the Quebec and federal governments. How much public money will be spent on the $180-million facility? Even the potential location is unknown. Few answers, but more great electoral fodder. “It’s good news for the economy, but also when it comes to autonomy,” Legault added at the press conference, using a subtle buzzword about Québécois pride.

Legault has been untouchable on controversial political matters, as well. He is seeking to unilaterally change the Canadian federation with Bill 96, which enshrines Quebec as a French speaking nation in the Constitution. He is blithely shielding laws from the charters of rights with the notwithstanding clause. He is pushing full autonomy for Quebec in immigration and other spheres, minimizing a federal presence here. Yet not a peep from any federal politicians, while Quebec continues collecting billions in equalization and transfer payments.

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Legault invoked the doomsday word “Louisiana” last week, subtle fear-mongering about Quebec eventually losing its francophone identity and language if Bill 96 doesn’t pass. It went unchallenged even though the histories and circumstances of the two populations are very different.

Legault is riding high and seemingly unstoppable in October. He is not being rigorously challenged and is surrounded by politicians much less able than himself. Until that changes, he will continue to make it look easy.

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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