Couillard comes to the aid of the party

Health minister will be a star candidate in the Quebec City region, and raise the profile of area Liberals

Québec 2007 - la bataille des régions

Goodbye, Health Minister Philippe Couillard, your about-to-be-former constituents in Mont-Royal hardly knew you.
After a single term as member of the National Assembly for that Montreal riding, the good doctor has been called by duty as well as family to the Quebec City constituency of Jean-Talon.
It's unusual for an MNA to change ridings from one general election to the next, unless it's to avoid imminent defeat or because his first riding was eliminated by redistribution.
Neither is the case for Couillard, who could have been re-elected in Mont-Royal even if he'd spent the entire campaign on a beach. The riding, about two-thirds of whose residents are non-francophones, has never voted anything but Liberal, and Couillard received 81 per cent of the vote there in 2003.
Getting elected in his new riding will be more of a challenge, though it, too, has never been represented by anybody but Liberals, and those are usually ministers when the party has been in power. The population is 98-per-cent francophone, and the outgoing Liberal MNA, Margaret Delisle, held it with a plurality of fewer than 3,500 votes last time.
Jean-Talon includes the affluent pre-merger suburbs west of Quebec City, but also the student residences on the campus of the Universite Laval (which is not in neighbouring Louis-Hebert, as I wrote last week). So Couillard will have a keen interest in whether the Liberal platform to be adopted on Saturday calls for extending or lifting the current freeze on tuition fees.
Couillard said he's switching to spend more time with his family, which moved to Quebec City after he was elected in 2003. But he'll also be more useful to his party as a candidate in Quebec City than in Montreal.
When Couillard announced his decision on Sunday, Premier Jean Charest said it "sends a strong message" to voters in the Quebec City region.
Even though it is the provincial capital, Quebec City is sensitive to being slighted by the government in favour of Montreal, the province's metropolis. Now it is getting one of the most important ministers, since health is the department with the largest budget, who is also, in the current administration, one of the most popular. And it is getting him as a full-time resident, not a transient who spends only three or four days a week in town while the Assembly is sitting.
Running in a Quebec City riding, Couillard can have more of an impact for his party than he would have in Montreal.
In Montreal, only one or two seats are expected to change hands. The Liberals, who lost Laurier-Dorion to the Parti Quebecois in a by-election, are favoured to take it back in the general election. And Cremazie, now held by the Liberals, is a bellwether that votes with the province-wide trend.
The other Montreal seats appear as solid as usual for either the Liberals or the PQ. And that's why the city has so little clout with the provincial government; the parties don't compete for Montreal votes because they have little to gain or lose.
Montreal's problem is that it just doesn't swing - in provincial elections, that is. But Quebec City does, with wild abandon. And the Plains of Abraham will be at the centre of one of the key battlegrounds in the coming election.
Currently, the Liberals hold eight of 11 seats in and around the capital on the Quebec City side of the St. Lawrence, and seven of 10 in the Chaudiere-Appalaches region across the river. But the area has become a hotbed of support for right-wing parties, the federal Conservatives and Mario Dumont's provincial Action democratique du Quebec.
As the most high-profile candidate in the local media's coverage area, Couillard can lead a regional campaign within the province-wide one for the Liberals. It's an opportunity for Couillard, who has leadership ambitions, to show that he's got appeal for francophone voters.
If he fails, however, it could hurt his leadership chances. And if he does help the Liberals get re-elected, then he'll also be helping to prolong Charest's leadership, which will give time to other would-be successors (Jean-Marc Fournier? Claude Bechard? Benoit Pelletier?) to improve their standing.

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