François Legault trades sovereignty for economic nationalism

Newsfirst Multimedia chats with leader of Coalition Avenir Québec

As a co-founder and leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault leads a political party which currently ranks third in seats in the Quebec National Assembly. While the CAQ has taken part in two general elections since its founding in 2011-2012, the party has yet to even come close to fulfilling its greatest ambition –forming a provincial government.

Newsfirst Multimedia had the opportunity last week to sit down for an at-length interview with Legault, who is also the co-founder of Air Transat, at our editorial offices. What follows is an edited transcript of what he had to say on issues ranging from the province’s need for an economic boost, to the renewed and thorny question of whether we also require a Charter of Quebec Values.

NM: There are currently CAQ MNAs just across the Mille Îles River on the North Shore and in the Lower Laurentian region, but still none in Laval. What is the difference between these two regions which makes this so?

FL: First, there’s a higher percentage of anglophones and allophones in Laval. That’s being direct, but that’s the reason. These people think that there’s only one party who would like to stay within Canada and that it’s the Liberal Party. That’s the reason. But it’s about time we discussed other priorities and discussed about the economy, education and the welfare system. It hasn’t improved for 15 years. But people from different communities, and from the anglophone communities, they vote for the Liberal Party since 50 years. We have to tell them that there’s an alternative, and that’s why I started the CAQ five years ago. And five years is not a long time, it’s not enough for everybody to know us, and that’s why I’m here today.

NM: Do you not see anything demographically different between Laval and the Lower Laurentians/North Shore that explains why one votes CAQ and the other not?

FL: No, I think that the francophones of Laval they vote as much for the CAQ as anywhere else. But because 90 per cent of the anglophones and the allophones vote for the Liberal Party and they have a higher percentage in Laval, that’s why. You can see the difference when you compare a riding like Chomedey and a riding like Laval-des-Rapides or Sainte-Rose. The francophone community supports us. And it’s about time we change that. And it’s about time we offer an alternative to the anglophones, the allophones and the different communities.

NM: Not everyone who lives in this province can relate to the concept of political nationalism. But Quebec economic nationalism is something that a great many more people can more easily understand. Can you tell us something about the CAQ’s spin on this?

FL: First you have to understand that when you have a headquarters in Quebec, the jobs at the headquarters are well-paid. The economic difference between Quebec and Ontario, for example, is not the number of jobs, but the quality of jobs. At a headquarters you have better jobs. At a headquarters you also have people who give some contracts and choose the suppliers. So it’s easier for Quebec companies to become suppliers of a company having its headquarters here. Everywhere in the world they try to protect their headquarters. I’ll give you my personal example: when I was with Air Transat I tried to buy a company in U.K. like Thomas Cook because we were buying travel agencies, and we found out that some pensions plans owned a block of 34 per cent of the shares and those shares were not for sale whatever price we offered. Same thing in France with Nouvelles Frontières, same thing in Germany with TUI. Look at what’s happening with Donald Trump: if there’s somebody who’s protectionist it’s Donald Trump. So we must not be naïve – we have to protect our headquarters. Of course we will not be able always to succeed. But look at what happened to Rona. Suppliers are seeing right now a reduction in their sales to Rona because [new owner] Lowe’s in the United States buys for everybody including Rona. It’s important to have headquarters.

NM: So there definitely is an economic impact from foreign ownership.

FL: Yeah. What you also have to understand is that in Quebec owning a company is not a long tradition. Especially in the French community it was against the religion to be an entrepreneur, because it was seen that if you made money it was because you took it from somebody else. But right now the worldwide economy is played in terms of billions of dollars. In Quebec, you have less than 10 per cent who are able to write a cheque of one billion – less than 10. So you don’t have that many rich people in Quebec. There are a lot more in Europe or in the United States.

NM: On that note, late last year you were reported to have suggested raising income taxes in Quebec for the very wealthy in order to subsidize the middle-class and less well-off. At least one editorialist noted at that time that there are relatively few people with this kind of wealth in Quebec.

FL: This was something that was badly reported. To be clear, what I said is that we want to decrease income taxes for all people earning less than $150,000. For all the ones earning more than this we want an indexation of tariffs and taxes – like tariffs for Hydro Quebec, for example. For me indexation is not an increase. In actual money it’s the same thing. I want to be clear that with a CAQ government nobody will have an increase of taxes, tariffs or income taxes by more than inflation. And the people earning less than $150,000 a year they’ll get a tax reduction.

NM: While the Liberals appear to have played both sides of the fence when it comes to adopting a Charter of Quebec Values, the CAQ seems more definite. You believe that such a charter is needed.

FL: I think we have to protect our values. Some people worry – not based on something substantial – but they still worry about protecting our values. Let’s talk about equality between men and women. Some people they come and live in Quebec and they don’t agree with equality between men and women. And some other people they worry about that. And I think, yes, we need a kind of Charter of Values. Not the way the PQ tried to do it, but a Charter of Values to make sure we protect our values. Our common values. For me, we have to be open, but we have to draw a line. And the line is that we have to protect our values.

NM: Turning to a more local issue, we have a hospital in Laval, Cité de la Santé, in which the Liberals have invested quite a bit of money over the years. Despite this, waiting times remain problematic, especially in emergency.

FL: At Cité de la Santé the average waiting time at emergency is 17 hours. Seventeen hours doesn’t make sense at all. Why is that? Because 40 per cent of the people going to emergency at Cité de la Santé should not be there. They should be seeing a family doctor. The problem with family doctors is that most of them work four to five days a week. Not at night, not on weekends. For a year I was the Minister for Health and I started what we called the GMF – Groupe de Médecine de Famille. And they were supposed (at least it was the case for the first one I opened) to be open seven days a week. But Dr. Couillard and Dr. Barrette they decided that they will not be open seven days a week, and they put instead what they called a super-clinic – and these are the only ones to be open. But most of the people on Saturday and Sunday if they get sick but they have to go to the emergency because they don’t have a family doctor. So if family doctors were taking charge of patients seven days a week, we would have 40 per cent less at Cité de la Santé, so of course it would change completely the picture. So we need to force the family doctors to take charge of patients seven days a week. They can be 10 doctors together and every weekend it would be a different one taking charge of the patients. But I think it’s about time that we forced them, and we should pay them this way. Right now doctors in Quebec are paid per service rendered. In some places in the world they are paid per patient. First, if they were paid per patient they would have an incentive to delegate some services to the nurse. Right now if they delegate a service to the nurse they are not paid. So I can’t understand that.

ML: Here we are not much more than a year before the next provincial election and it looks as if the Liberals are reasonably well-positioned. What’s your take?

FL: I think that right now two-thirds of Quebecers are against the sovereignty of Quebec. So if it was Liberals against the PQ they [Liberals] would be in a good position. But there’s a problem, there’s a new party – the CAQ. The CAQ proposes staying within Canada. So we’ll have to have a debate about the last 15 years. Next year it’ll be 15 years [for the Liberals]. Is it going better in health care since 15 years? Is it going better in education? Is it getting better in the economy? Do we have more money in our pockets? I think they will have to defend what they did. Because it’s almost the same thing with Mr. Couillard as the team we had with Mr. Charest. So I think we are in a good position. But people they have to understand that it’s not a battle about the sovereignty of Quebec. It’s a battle about who has the best program in economy, education and health care. And especially in economy because you need to have the means to do what you have to do.

NM: The Liberal government’s education minister has changed more times than we care to mention. Why is that?

FL: Because they don’t have a plan. We have a plan. First we think that we should switch the power from school boards to schools like in the model of private schools. The full budget should be given to the schools and the schools they are the ones who would decide if they want more social workers or classrooms or whatever. It should be managed at the school level. And schools should put together some services like transportation of pupils. But right now it’s the opposite. The schools work for the school boards. The school boards must work for the schools. That’s the first point. The second point is that if we want to have more children succeeding we have to start earlier. In Ontario, school starts at four years old. One of our proposals – and it costs a lot of money, it’s $290 million a year – but we think that all children of four years old they must have access to school. They must have an evaluation. And right now we have between 15 and 20 per cent of the children having some kind of difficulties. They must be helped sooner – at four years old instead of five years old. So we need a program. But the only program of the Liberal Party is their one line: ‘I’m against the sovereignty of Quebec.’ What is their program in education? ‘I’m against the sovereignty of Quebec.’ What is their program in health care? ‘I’m against the sovereignty of Quebec.’ C’mon, it’s not a program. It’s about time we have a real debate. Since 45 years all provincial elections have been about are we for or against the sovereignty of Quebec.

NM: The CAQ in the past has come out proposing the outright abolition of the province’s school boards. Would a CAQ government still do this?

FL: We will replace them by service centres. They will be the equivalent of schools boards. And instead of having an election where nobody goes to vote for commissioners, they will be chosen within the conseils d’établissements [governing boards] of every school. So they will choose people to take charge of the board for the service centres, but there will be no more elections. But the English community would keep their schools, keep their service centres, no change, but instead of having an election where nobody would vote they will be chosen with the boards of the different schools.

NM: We are not very far from Autoroute 13 where there was a traffic and public safety crisis following a snow storm in March. Although the matter remains under investigation, what went wrong there according to you?

FL: Bad management. It’s incredible when you have a Minister of Transport saying, ‘I’m sorry, nobody called me.’ C’mon, I was in business. And when a flight from Air Transat was late I would not have answered sorry nobody called me. You make sure that somebody calls you when there’s something very wrong happening. Plus you must read the [Quebec] auditor-general’s report, chapter five about management: nobody is accountable. They say that in many areas within the Ministry of Transport, two, three or four people are in charge. When you have more than one person in charge there’s nobody in charge. They don’t have the expertise. They lost the best engineers. So it’s a big lack of management. The same thing with health care and education. But the Ministry of Transport is not different. We really need to have some business people taking charge of those ministries. But we don’t have enough business people in politics. We have many lawyers, many people who are good in talking, but we need to have more business people. Because right now the ministers are managed by the civil servants instead of the other way around. That’s what happened: a lack of management with Autoroute 13.

NM: Quebec’s fertility rate continued to decline last year. Some of the latest numbers indicate the rate falls as low as 1.4 children per woman in some regions. How do you fix that?

FL: First we will need more immigrants – that’s clear – with our values. But we need also to help more families. We are right now preparing our program for next year. Do we have to put back into place more family allocations? But we also have to encourage more people to have children. We have to give them more money. It has to be easier to have children.

NM: Are you considering maybe a program like they have in certain countries in Europe where they pay mothers or fathers to stay home to take care of their children?

FL: Indirectly. If you give a family allocation, if you give them good cheques, they will stay at home. But I think right now you have to have more children in Quebec. 1.4 does not generate pérénité.

NM: Being an entrepreneur and a former insider in the airline industry, perhaps you have some thoughts on the current state of affairs at Bombardier.

FL: First, we need to help companies like Bombardier. So I have no problem with that. It’s a manufacturing business, they export goods so it’s a key for our economy. Let’s talk about Alain Bellemare and Pierre Beaudoin – I know them very well. In 2016, they suffered a loss of $1 billion. So how can you propose to increase salaries and bonuses of Alain Bellemare from $8.5 million to $12.5 million? And Pierre Beaudoin he’s been fired as a CEO. He’s now chairman of the board at $5 million a year. I don’t know of any chairman of the board earning more than a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. You have 11 or 12 meetings to manage a year for $5 million. So for me it doesn’t make sense. And also we must have asked for some guarantees regarding the number of jobs, and we must have invested not only in the C-series but in the whole company. And look at the jobs: in Quebec you have 16,000 jobs with Bombardier, 2,000 with the C-series and 14,000 in other divisions. We’ve put a full $1.3 billion in the C-series. And I’m from the airline business. I can tell you the C-series is an aircraft of 150 seats in competition with the Boeing 737 and the Airbus 390. And Airbus and Boeing they offer also aircraft of 250 seats, of 350 seats also. So honestly for me it’s a big risk. If I was at Bombardier I wouldn’t have invested in the C-series. I think that trains, tramways, jets, fine. But competing against these two giants. And the only aircraft they sold in the last year were sold to Air Canada and Delta with a loss of $500 million. And those guys we are paying them bonuses? That’s what happens when you have a party that’s in power for too much time. The Liberal Party is in power since 15 years and now they help their friends. They’ve given also $400 million in Gaspésie for Cimenterie McInnis. We already have three cimenteries that are not at full capacity. So $400 million for 200 jobs. $2 million a job. I understand it’s in Gaspésie, but come on. Why? Because it’s their friends.