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Canada

Quebec election: Couillard talks referendum, then takes it back

In a change from the ordinary, it was the Liberals, not the Parti Québécois or Coalition Avenir Québec, talking about holding a referendum on Monday.

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard said he would oppose an electoral reform proposed by his rivals to create a mixed-member proportional representation system, and without unanimous support in the National Assembly, Couillard said a reform would need support from the majority of Quebecers in a referendum.

Couillard made the remarks during an editorial board meeting with Le Devoir, but when asked about it two hours later during a news conference, he backed off the idea.

“I said any change to the electoral system would need at minimum unanimous support in the National Assembly,” Couillard said at a hotel in downtown Montreal. He then refused to answer whether he thought there should be a referendum on the matter.

Under the present system, Quebecers vote for a candidate in their riding, and the candidate with the most votes is elected — regardless of whether they get a majority of votes. The party that succeeds in electing the most MNAs is called upon to form a government.

Under the mixed system proposed by the three opposition parties, voters would still cast their ballots for a candidate in their riding, however there would also be a list of candidates proposed by the parties who would be elected based on the percentage of the vote received by each of the parties. That system is perceived to be more fair because everyone’s vote is given more equal weight. It also gives parties with less popular support an advantage, because they would get seats in the National Assembly with only a smattering of support spread out across the province.

The last time a party lost the popular vote but won the general election was in 1998, when the Parti Québécois formed the government with Lucien Bouchard.

Couillard’s opponents accused him of favouring a system that puts his party at an advantage.

“The system serves the Liberal party well, so he’ll use all the arguments he can to keep it in place,” PQ leader Jean-François Lisée said. “As premier, we will adopt this change with the agreement of three parties.”

Couillard countered that his opposition to the proposal is that it would disadvantage the province’s rural areas.

“The areas of the province that will be weakened by this are the (rural) regions,” he said. “Regions like Saguenay, Mauricie, Abitibi. There will be fewer people elected from the regions under this plan.”

For his part, Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault said he too will propose a change to the electoral system if his party forms the government, and won’t insist on a unanimous vote for the change to take effect.

“If a majority of members of the National Assembly that vote for this change, it will be done. It’s not true that Philippe Couillard will hold a veto on this,” Legault said while campaigning in Val-d’Or.

Also Monday, the Liberal leader presented his party’s plan to help spur innovation in small and medium-sized businesses. Among the measures proposed are to nearly double the government’s investment to develop the artificial intelligence ecosystem to $180 million, to facilitate access to open data, and to create regulatory sandboxes, to allow some innovative companies can benefit from a suspension in government regulations in order to try new projects.

Couillard spent most of the day in Laval — a region considered a Liberal stronghold. He visited a campaign office in Ste-Rose, and then headed to Université de Montréal’s Laval campus to tour its new training centre for prospective nursing students. The facility had high-tech mannequins, and the first virtual patient that Couillard — a former brain surgeon — visited was a football player with a brain injury.

He ended the day with a rally in a banquet hall in Laval. On Tuesday, Couillard will tour Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Shawinigan before ending the day in Quebec City.

jmagder@postmedia.com

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