Kramberger: West Islanders dump on dubious secularism proposals

Kramberger: West Islanders dump on dubious secularism proposals
Coalition Avenir Québec MNAs sworn in at the National Assembly
“We were elected by the people in our ridings,” the premier-designate said. “If we are numerous it is because we listened to their concerns.”

Quebec premier- designate François Legault reacts to the applauding crowd as he arrives to be sworn in as member of the National Assembly on Tuesday. Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS

François Legault looked out over the sea of newly sworn-in Coalition Avenir Québec MNAs gathered in the historic red room of the legislature Tuesday and paused for thought.

The CAQs plan to temporarily reduce immigration levels by 20 per cent, to 40,000 newcomers annually, could exacerbate that shortage in the near term. But Mr. Legault insists the plan will pay off economically in the long term by better integrating immigrants and matching their skills to labour market needs. Analysts are dubious that the plan will work, however, since the vast majority of immigrants continue to settle in Montreal, while jobs in several depopulating regions go unfilled.

“You know, when we launched the CAQ almost seven years ago, I let slip a few words that are often quoted when I said, ‘We’ll see.’

Quebecs demographic challenge is particularly acute. Its unemployment rate sat at a record low of 5.3 per cent in September, in large part because its labour force has been shrinking. While the employment rate among 25- to 64-year-old Quebeckers in the labour force stands at a robust 85 per cent, the provinces participation rate has been on the decline as baby boomers opt for early or semi-retirement. This has left the province with a serious skills and labour shortage.

“I was listening to the names being read out, one by one, and said to myself, ‘It’s incredible.’”

At $24.3-billion, overall federal transfer payments, including cash for health-care and social programs, will account for about 22 per cent of the Quebec governments revenues in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The CAQs fiscal framework, tabled during the election campaign, projected federal transfers of $25.6-billion in 2022-23, the final year of a CAQ governments first mandate.

In fact, with 74 MNAs, enough to form the first majority government in 50 years that is neither Liberal nor Parti Québécois, Legault’s mandate is so strong he felt obliged to inject a dose of humility into the mix.

“Never forget we were elected by the people in our ridings,” he said, turning to his troops seated before him. “If we are so numerous it is because we listened to their concerns.

“Our team must now create a government for Quebecers, not a CAQ government. We will form a government for all Quebecers.”

What that means is that CAQ MNAs must remember they also represent people who did not vote for the party, to put aside partisan considerations and act with the higher interests of Quebec in mind.

With emotion in his voice, he recalled the previous attempt to carve out a third way in Quebec’s previously polarized political world. That was Mario Dumont’s old Action démocratique du Québec party, which got close to the goal of governing when it won 41 seats  in 2007 and became the official opposition.

Quebec is set to receive $11.7-billion in equalization payments this fiscal year, or about 62 per cent of the total sum Ottawa will dole out to the six have-not provinces. By comparison, the richest” have-not province – Ontario – will pocket $963-million in equalization payments, according to the federal Finance department.

What Dumont lacked, however, was the kind of group Legault has assembled to carry it further. The CAQ team, made up of a collection of business people, managers and technocrats, takes government to a whole new level in experimentation.

Quebec experienced above-average economic growth in 2017, with gross domestic product (GDP) expanding by a heady 3 per cent. Over all, however, the provinces economy has been a laggard in recent decades and it has continued to rely heavily on equalization payments from Ottawa.

Can it work? There will be more details on this later. Legault is putting the finishing touches on his first cabinet.

While most analysts doubt Quebec can wean itself off equalization payments any time soon, if ever, Mr. Legault gets high marks at least for vowing to try. No Quebec premier in recent memory has set the economic bar as high. And as a businessman at heart, he demands results.

That will be announced Thursday at 2 p.m. There are rumours it will have about 20 members, 10 men, 10 women. It is at that time that Legault will go from premier-designate to Quebec’s 42nd premier.

Needless to say, its a tall order for premier-designate François Legault and his cohort of Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) newbies, most of whom have never before sat in the National Assembly, much less the provincial cabinet.

But with so many greenhorn MNAs — 51 of the 74 have no political experience — Legault knows his main challenge in the early days is to not trip up or at least not trip up badly.

“I learned a lesson in this election,” he said in reference to his mea culpa over his lack of knowledge over immigration. “It is okay to say I made a mistake. It was true for me, it is true for you.

“Quebecers don’t expect us to be perfect; they expect us to listen and do our best, that we improve. So remember this. You are allowed to make mistakes.”

The opposition parties, also being sworn in this week as well, are counting on such bungles to discredit the young regime. As Liberal interim leader Pierre Arcand said Monday, it takes more to govern than tossing a new idea in the air and hoping it takes wing.

Legault lives in fear of a repeat performance of Pauline Marois’s brief government in 2012, which stumbled daily. To that end, he has been taking a conciliatory tone, reaching out to the Liberals, Québec solidaire and Parti Québécois opponents, offering to move on some of their ideas as well as his own.

“We have committed ourselves to govern in a different way,” the newly elected MNA for Beauce-Sud, Samuel Poulin, told reporters later at a news conference. “This time we hope it works, that there is a change in tone in the National Assembly.”

There are indicators change is afoot. For one thing, when the place resumes sitting before Christmas, it will have less of a men’s locker room atmosphere.

The cabinet will be revealed and sworn in on Thursday. Legault is said to want 20 people in his cabinet arnd for it to be gender balanced.

Of the CAQ’s 74 MNAs, 28 are women, the highest number ever elected by a party in Quebec history.

All 74 CAQ MNAs were sworn in during the two-hour long ceremony in the Red Room of the National Assembly.

A sign the party was elected by francophones living in suburbia or the regions, there are only three minority community members in the caucus and only two MNAs from the island of Montreal, Chantal Rouleau (Pointe-aux-Trembles) and Richard Campeau (Bourget).

Four MNAs chose to pronounce their oaths in French and English. Legault, who usually includes a passage in English in his important speeches, chose not to this time.

The Canadian flag, however, remained in the red room for the event. The PQ and QS has it removed for such ceremonies.

Such a large number of MNAs from the same generation sparked some humorous calculations by reporters. There are five MNAs in the caucus named François and four named Eric. Two of those Erics are both named Eric Girard.

One of those Eric Girards, the one who is an economist and former vice-president of the National Bank, will probably be Quebec’s finance minister by Thursday, a successor to Liberal Carlos Leitão, who will now sit in opposition.

On Thursday Legault might also announce the date he wants the legislature recalled to start putting in place the many reforms he promised in the Oct. 1 election.

Iberville MNA Claire Samson shares a moment with François Legault while being sworn into the National Assembly.

Seventy-four Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) members were sworn in as MNAs at the National Assembly Tuesday afternoon.

One by one, returning members and the 51 new members of the National Assembly pledged allegiance to Queen Elizabeth and to the people of Quebec.

“Last time we were only a handful of members, now look at this,” she said to premier-designate François Legault, who was standing by her side.

“What a beautiful team we have,” Legault said. “When I founded the CAQ, I used to say, ‘We will see.’ Well today, we are seeing.

“If we were elected in such great numbers, it’s because we are close to Quebecers’ needs. I ask you to stay close to Quebecers,” he said to his MNAs.

Legault also described how proud he was of forming a government whose party has more female MNAs than any other party. There will also be a record number of female MNAs in the National Assembly this year.

Be careful not to get these new CAQ MNAs mixed up: there are 2 with each of these last names: Blais, Charest, Lecours, Tardif, Proulx & Picard. And 2 Eric Girards! pic.twitter.com/w0mTQcxOBz

READ MORE: François Legault leads Coalition Avenir Québec to majority as Liberals ousted from power

Even before officially taking power, Legault has already caused controversy and butted heads with the federal government on a couple of notable issues.

The proposed ban would bar certain state employees — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.

Legault has gone as far as saying he would invoke the notwithstanding clause in order to uphold his proposal.

The controversial plan has sparked protests in Montreal and led to accusations from teachers that the CAQ is trying to create a problem where none exists.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also voiced his unease with the idea, saying he is not of the opinion that the state should be able to tell a woman what she can wear, nor what she cannot wear.

READ MORE: Trudeau says women shouldnt be told what to wear as Legault plans to ban religious symbols

Trudeau has said the incoming Quebec governments plan to raise the legal age could leave an opening for organized crime.

The prime minister explained that increasing the legal age could undermine one of the federal cannabis laws key aims: eliminating the black market.

“Before being premier, I am an MNA of my riding, L’Assomption,” he said. “Just like you, I represent every citizen. I speak on their behalf, on behalf of children, seniors, families, the sick, the most needy. And also, like you, I also speak on behalf of PQ, Liberal and Quebec solidaire voters. They didn’t vote for me but they live in my riding.”

“We have to be conscious of that, it forces us to elevate ourselves above partisan interests in the superior interest of Quebec and our citizens. You are now MNAs. It’s a great responsibility and I invite you to wear with honour and humility this exceptional privilege.”