Saying he was tired but overjoyed after his election victory, the next premier of Quebec told reporters Tuesday that he was already getting down to business, preparing for the transition to power.
And Liberal Leader Jean Charest – who warned in his acceptance speech that all of Canada should expect things to change – said the transformation of Quebec’s relationship with Ottawa that he was seeking would be “non-constitutional.”
Mr. Charest repeated his pledge that Quebec would play a “leadership role” in reforming the federation – asking for the transfer of tax powers from the federal government and addressing the “fiscal imbalance” between Ottawa and the provinces.
Quebec will “transform the way in which the federal system operates – in a positive way,” he said in French.
“We have played a very important role in transforming the way the federation functions” in the past, Mr. Charest said, citing agreements with Ottawa over responsibility for manpower-training and immigration policy.
“The changes we will make will not only benefit the people of Quebec … they will be very beneficial to other Canadians.”
The Liberals won 76 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats in Monday’s vote, deposing the government of Bernard Landry’s Parti Québécois, who were left with 45 seats. The Action Démocratique du Québec of Mario Dumont won four seats.
Mr. Charest, who said he was tired but in good spirits, said he spoke with the outgoing Premier on Tuesday morning, and planned to meet with Mr. Landry – for whom he said he had “lots of respect” -- in his office Wednesday morning to discuss the transition.
“Yesterday, the people of Quebec had the last word. And we are very proud and very pleased with the results of the election,” Mr. Charest said.
Mr. Charest was asked how he would choose his new cabinet from his 76 MNAs. “Forming a new cabinet with so much talent is exactly the kind of problem I was hoping to have,” he said, saying that “competence” would be his first criterion, but that geography and diversity would also play a role.
And he pledged to move quickly on what he has said would be his government’s No.1 priority: health care, promising within a few months to reopen operating rooms closed because of lack of funds.
Meanwhile, Mr. Landry told a separate press conference that he had not decided on his personal future, but that he would take a “period of reflection” before making any move.
“The principal factor is the best interests of Quebec,” he said.
Observers have speculated that the 66-year-old would step down after a defeat.
Mr. Landry said that the PQ maintained the support that it had going into the campaign when it was leading in the polls, but that ADQ supporters fled to Liberals, tipping the scales. “That is the mathematics of this election,” he told reporters.
He said that any declaration of the death of Quebec’s sovereignty movement was premature, adding that the PQ often enjoys an advantage in opposition. People vote for complex reasons he said – not just on whether or not they support sovereignty.
In Ottawa, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe defended his separatist party’s relevance in Ottawa, saying that despite the election of a federalist premier, 40 to 45 per cent of Quebeckers still support sovereignty, and he planned to represent them.
But he also said he was “ready to work with [Mr. Charest] when the interests of Quebec are involved.”
Mr. Duceppe praised Mr. Charest’s proposal to establish a permanent “council of the federation” with the other provinces to address federal-provincial problems, calling it the “right approach.”
The Bloc Leader also said he would hold Mr. Charest to account for his pledge to fight Ottawa over what Quebec politicians call the “fiscal imbalance” of tax powers and revenues between the federal and provincial governments.
He said Mr. Charest’s Liberal counterparts in Ottawa – including the party’s candidates vying to replace Prime Minister Jean Chrétien -- all deny that any such fiscal imbalance exists, so Mr. Charest will have his work cut out for him.
He also said that the sovereignty movement would not go away. “The national question has not been resolved” despite the PQ’s loss, he said.