Philippe Couillard says he was wrong about anglo minister

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QUEBEC — Premier Philippe Couillard says he was wrong in the past for saying it was not necessary for his government to have a minister for relations with the English-speaking community.

And he is not surprised the opposition is unhappy with Wednesday’s cabinet shuffle, he said, because it is never satisfied. As for media critics, an angry Couillard snapped they only want to see drama and “blood on the table,” in such an exercise so they can produce more interesting yarns.

“I was wrong (about the minister), because when I met English-speaking communities in regions I detected on their part a level of concern at being far away — the impression they didn’t have access to public services like other Quebec citizens did,” Couillard told reporters Thursday at a news conference.

“This raised questions in my mind. I thought we had to correct this.”

He said the government decided first of all to create a secretariat for the community — something he announced last June in an interview with the Montreal Gazette — and add the minister, which he did Wednesday in the shuffle.

Former Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil got the job.

Couillard was not saying the same thing in his 2013 leadership race. At the time, he argued against a minister specifically for anglophones because he didn’t want to divide Quebecers along linguistic lines.

On Thursday, Couillard refuted the idea his move was purely electoral – even cynical – this close to the next election or a sign of panic given the inroads the Coalition Avenir Québec appears to be making among minority voters.

He said the direct consequence of Quebec’s fixed date election law – which stipulates the next election will be in October 2018 – is that anything the government does before it is perceived as a vote getter.

“If you base things on this logic the government would have to stop operating two years before the election because it will be accused of trolling for votes,” he said.

“It was time to do it, it’s been done. Kathleen is going to be the first holder of this portfolio. The secretariat will be out in place soon. I think it was needed.

“I didn’t want to create the impression that we had two governments, one for English-speaking Quebecers, one for French-speaking Quebecers, but I saw, in the regions in particular, the needs of the community.

“I want to answer those needs because these are Quebecers, first class Quebecers, and they need that attention too.”

Couillard made the comments a day after shuffling his cabinet — promoting five young backbenchers into key positions but keeping stalwarts, like Gaétan Barrette in health and Carlos Leitão in finance.

Only one minister, Rita de Santis, was dropped in the shuffle, which saw the cabinet grow from 25 to 30 persons.

The Parti Québécois opposition has criticized his shuffle saying 92 per cent of the government’s spending authority remains in the same hands.

But Couillard said their reaction is no surprise.

“Did you expect them to say otherwise? It doesn’t come as a big surprise.”

Couillard said the opposition can’t have it both ways; criticizing him for months for not changing his team and then attacking him for making what he called “audacious,” decisions like putting more youth and women in positions of power.

Forty-seven per cent of the cabinet including the deputy premier are women.

He urged reporters to check their history books to “find similar levels of change.”

He had choice words for media pundits who said he should have gone further.

“What do you the media want? You want your pound of flesh and a bit of blood on the table? Is that what interests you?

“You want human drama? Is that what excites you a little so you can write nice articles on that? I prefer to talk about the competence of people. We have competent people at the table? Why would they have left, because they are competent and are well seasoned? What is this story?

‘Musical chairs’

Opposition parties have ripped the shuffle, describing it as more of the same.

The same basic set of ministers remain in place, which means the government — despite its spin that it is transforming itself — has no real new solutions to the problems of the day, they say.

“We’ve seen this before: the premier changes the supporting actors but that changes noting in the actions of this government because the principal cast remains in place,” Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée said in a statement.

He said many of them are former Coalition Avenir Québec members, which means the Liberal Party is now closer to the right wing than ever.

“The Liberal government has completed its shift into CAQ-ADQ-land,” said Lisée.

The negative message was similar from the other opposition party, the Coalition Avenir Québec. CAQ house leader François Bonnardel said it’s like the government walked into a room and sprayed around a bit of air freshener. It dissipates pretty fast.

Noting the Liberals will have been in power nearly 15 years (except for the 18-month term of the PQ), Bonnardel said 17 of Couillard’s ministers were there under the previous leader (Jean Charest).

“It’s all well and good to play musical chairs but nothing has changed,” Bonnardel said. “The problem is the head conductor.”

Thursday, Couillard’s new ministers fanned out, granting multiple interviews to put the right spin on the Liberal message.

There was some positive feedback. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he was glad to see a combintation of youth and old hands because the city has a good working relationship with Couillard’s ministers in Quebec City.

That same government passed a bill giving Montreal the status of metropolis.

“From Montreal’s perspective, our administration and our future administration won’t have to go back to school,” Coderre said. “We just pick up the phone and we can talk to each other.”

pauthier@postmedia.com

twitter.com/philipauthier

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