What could be Philippe Couillard’s unfortunate legacy

Hint: it has nothing to do with Arthur Porter
CORRECTS SPELLING OF PHILIPPE Philippe Couillard arrives to announce his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec LiberalsWednesday, October 3, 2012 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

We’ve heard the dirt on newly-minted Quebec Liberal Party leader many, many times in the past few months. We heard of his ties to disgraced  health administration wunderkind Arthur Porter, having gone so far as to register a business with the man now facing a variety of fraud-related charges in relation to the construction of Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre. We heard how he dissolved said business on the same day he announced his candidacy for leader. We heard how he and Porter served on the board of the Security Intelligence Review Committee at roughly the same time. We heard how the pair went fishing together in New Brunswick.

It’s certainly worth questioning Couillard’s judgement on the Porter file—but then, you’d have to question the judgement of the province’s political and healthcare establishment, much of which was peachy-keen on Porter when he landed at McGill in 2004. You’d also have to question why the Conservative government would ever appoint such an apparently shady character to the chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the overseeing body of Canada’s national intelligence service. All anyone, from Couillard to Harper to the MUHC folks, had to do was read clippings from the Detroit Free Press’s Kim Norris to realize how Porter left that tragic city’s health system in 2003 under cloud of blown budgets, cost overruns and questionable decisions.

None of this stuff has stuck to Couillard—at least, not enough for it to prevent him from becoming Liberal leader. He managed to convince just enough people (and the voting public, if polls are to be believed) that Porter duped him as Porter did many other rich and powerful types in Quebec. It remains awfully strange that Couillard and Porter served on the SIRC board together, but barring further evidence of fire that story will remain smoke, to be blown away by whatever other scandal crops up.

Bully for Couillard, then. I too would be smiling if I managed to become the leader of the province’s most successful political party mere months after dissolving my relationship with one of its alleged biggest fraudsters. But while his Porter pas de deux remains troubling, if not altogether politically fraught, I’m more worried about another of Couillard’s skeletons, one that is somewhat more enduring than an aborted business venture with an alleged scam artist.

It’s this: Philippe Couillard is a federalist. Like, a huge federalist. As in, I-want-to-open-new-Constitution-talks federalist. On constitutional matters, he is an acolyte of Benoit Pelletier, Charest’s former intergovernmental affairs minister, who has pushed (or nudged, anyway) for new constitutional talks since leaving office in 2008. Couillard is even more constitutionally rabid than Pelletier. He said he wants Quebec to be a signatory of the Constitution by 2017. The fruit isn’t only ripe, in other words. It’s practically falling off the vine.

Which is all fine and good, except for this: should Couillard pursue this line of thinking in office, you and me and everyone else would be in for Meech Lake part deux, and all the spleen-venting, hair-pulling, hand-wringing fun that would entail. Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have succeeded in stumping the Parti Québécois simply by depriving the sovereignist party of any platform from which to vent its rage. Our Prime Minister knows what the vast majority of Quebecers know: the province hasn’t suffered one iota from having not signed the Constitution in 1982. Talking about it puts most Quebecers to sleep—unless you force the issue on them. Then it’s Pandora’s Box time.

Imagine Canada, 2015. Couillard is Quebec Premier raring to go on the Constitution. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, eager to right his father’s legacy, is just as eager. Together they embark on a vanity project that has little value beyond the cosmetic. The Parti Québécois gets suitably, predictably enraged. The rest of Canada does the same, when it isn’t busy yawning. Something is made of nothing and, yadda yadda yadda, Referendum.

Seems we’ve heard this record before. Why play it again?