QUEBEC – The three opposition parties in the Quebec National Assembly combined Friday to block a bill that would have given the provincial government sweeping powers to speed up $3 billion in infrastructure projects.
The defeat of Bill 61, “to restart Québec’s economy and to mitigate the consequences of the public health emergency” comes three months after the first pandemic news conference of Premier François Legault.
Before the showdown, opposition members praised Legault for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, recalling how they stepped aside to give the premier the spotlight and a leadership role.
They also recalled how, in the background, opposition members maintained contacts with ministers in the Coalition Avenir Québec government and proposed ideas that the government followed up on.
Pascal Bérubé, interim Parti Québécois leader, did note that Legault seemed annoyed in their telephone conversation when Montreal Gazette reporter Aaron Derfel reported a high number of deaths in Maison Herron, a West Island Montreal seniors’ residence.
“It was major and showed the vulnerability in long-term care,” Bérubé said.
Bérubé said Quebecers had confidence in the premier in dealing with the pandemic, and that confidence extended to the opposition parties.
All that changed with the introduction of Bill 61, which under assembly rules required unanimous consent. In the Quebec assembly bills introduced after mid-May can only be adopted unanimously.
And Bérubé, who was a close collaborator of Legault when they were both in the PQ, said that in his recent media briefings, Legault has been less concerned with public health and more concerned with his political agenda.
As Manon Massé of Québec solidaire noted, with 5,148 deaths, Quebec counts for more than half Canada’s COVID-19 fatalities.
Deaths per 100,000 in Quebec from COVID-19 stand at 628, compared with 258 per 100,000 for Canada as a whole.
Legault, presenting a motion Friday calling for a minute of silence for those who have died, noted that of the total about 500 were in the general population, with deaths in long-term care accounting for 90 per cent of the total and another 8 per cent among other seniors, 60 and over.
Still, Legault’s stewardship is well regarded by Quebecers.
A Léger poll last week indicated 90 per cent satisfaction among French speakers and 83 per cent satisfaction overall.
Legault’s CAQ won a majority government in 2018, with 37.4 per cent of the vote.
In the Léger poll, the CAQ scored 54 per cent, or 64 per cent among the francophone majority.
Perhaps feeling invincible, with that satisfaction rating, Legault’s government in Bill 61 proposed measures to reduce what Legault termed delays of 11 months to secure environmental approval for a new long-term care residence, school or hospital, and another 18 months for expropriation.
His ministers said it could take five to seven years to build a new hospital.
One sticking point was a section of Bill 61, dropped in an effort to mollify opposition to the bill, that would have allowed the government to modify or suspend the rules for public contracts by cabinet order, allowing contracts to be awarded without bids.
At public hearings, this shortcut was seen as a possible return to the corruption and collusion that has plagued Quebec’s construction sector.
The public health emergency, granting powers to the Quebec health minister to deal with the pandemic, and empowering police to enforce rules restricting public gatherings, was first declared March 13.
It now must be renewed every 11 days.
Bill 61 proposed that it be extended as long as the government deemed fit, with Treasury Board President Christian Dubé saying it could last two years, and for some aspects as long as five years.
The Quebec Bar, representing lawyers in the province, said in testimony at the assembly that there is a reason the cabinet must regularly reconsider emergency powers, as a safeguard.
Dubé proposed an amendment limiting the emergency to Oct. 2, but still renewable.
In addition to public hearings, in her annual report Quebec’s auditor-general revealed that the Quebec Transport Department still lacks 255 engineers and technicians, needed to monitor and control costs on construction projects.
Auditor-General Guylaine Leclerc also told the committee Quebec’s health department has 1,000 different information technology systems, none of which can communicate with the others.
And Quebec’s sustainable development commissioner in his report this week said Quebec will not meet its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 37.5 per cent in 2030, still below the Paris Agreement’s target of a 50-per-cent reduction by 2030.
Environmentalist groups said shortcuts to secure environmental approval could further endanger the state of nature in Quebec and in particular wetlands.
Dubé presented his amendments after the hearings, but the opposition parties judged them inadequate.
Liberal Gaétan Barrette and Vincent Marissal, of Québec solidaire, presented stripped-down versions of Bill 61, removing the contentious sections and adding anti-corruption safeguards, in a bid to compromise.
But the government dug in, pointing out that Quebec’s mayors, in particular Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Quebec City’s Régis Labeaume, were calling for the adoption of Bill 61.
When the government proposed a vote on second reading, approval in principle, the opposition parties said they would not agree.
Deputy Speaker Maryse Gaudreault asked if there was consent to continue the debate, and in the absence of consent, Gaudreault adjourned the assembly, as planned, until Sept. 15.