11/14/2011 04:30 EST | Updated 01/13/2012 05:12 EST

Francois Legault: Former PQ Cabinet Minister To Announce New Right-Of-Centre Party For Quebec

Quebec's newest political party is making a symbolic statement with its logo, a multicoloured mish-mash that borrows freely from the emblems of the existing parties it hopes to supplant.

The Coalition For Quebec's Future, which had been riding atop public-opinion polls for months, finally unveiled its platform and logo at the party's official launch Monday.

The platform contained few surprises. The logo, however, became an instant Internet sensation.

It was the top local trending topic on Twitter. People joked that it looked like a face smashed through a windshield, a parakeet stuck in a fan, and a hallucinogenic hangover.

But party leader Francois Legault hopes Quebecers will recognize it as a sign of something else: the future.

The party's main message is that Quebec's duelling political clans, who have clashed over the issue of independence since the 1960s, should lay down their arms and work together.

The message appears to have found a captive audience. Buoyed by a desire for change, and by extensive media coverage in Quebec, the party had already been dominating opinion polls even before it officially existed.

The shape of the logo looks like the four-decade-old emblem of the Parti Quebecois, but with the "Q" shortened to look like a "C." And its colours include Liberal red.

Following a year of rumours and growing expectations, Legault launched the party at a splashy news conference Monday. He said it was time to rally Quebecers of all political stripes around common goals.

A former airline executive and cabinet minister under the Parti Quebecois, Legault now says it's time to put the independence debate on ice. He says the debate has hit a dead end and is holding Quebec back.

"After 40 years, it's time for a new era," Legault told the Quebec City news conference.

"An era when Quebec starts to advance again. A strong Quebec, a dynamic Quebec, a proud Quebec."

Until a few years ago, Legault was deemed by his colleagues to be among the PQ hardliners most urgently pushing for a quick independence referendum. Many are now surprised to see him making such an abrupt U-turn.

Legault says he continues to favour independence. But he insists that for the rest of his political career he will not seek — nor lay the groundwork for — another referendum.

He says his priority is making Quebec more prosperous.

"I'm not here to promote sovereignty — nor reopen the constitution," Legault said.

"There is no desire in the rest of Canada to negotiate. And in Quebec, people aren't interested in making this decision anytime soon."

Legault is focusing on other priorities, like increasing teacher pay while getting rid of school boards. He describes himself as slightly right of centre on economic issues, while left of centre on social ones.

A scan of his party's priorities reveals some unique promises, but few that fall outside Quebec's political mainstream:

—On health care, Legault wants to abolish regional health agencies and give hospitals more autonomy. Those hospitals' budgets would be based on the number of patients treated — not on their past budgets. The party says it does not favour more private health care.

—On the economy and public finances, the Coalition says it plans to pay down Quebec's large public debt faster by allocating 100 per cent of non-renewable resource royalties to debt repayment. It also proposes a large interventionist measure: a $5 billion fund to encourage Quebec-based corporate ownership, in a system of subsidies that might please left-wingers far more than it would an economic conservative.

—On language, the Coalition says it will enforce Quebec's language laws and use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause, if necessary, in an ongoing debate over private English schooling for immigrants and francophones.

—The Coalition would also reduce immigration levels by almost 10 per cent, for two years, while the province puts in place better programs to help new Quebecers learn French. This resembles the positions of other Quebec opposition parties, which are clashing with Jean Charest's Liberal government on immigration levels.

Legault's opponents were all too happy Monday to point out potential flaws with his plans.

Premier Jean Charest joked that the party's French acronym — CAQ, for Coalition pour l'avenir du Quebec — should stand for, "Clashes Across Quebec."

He said the longtime, committed separatist would inevitably wind up in conflict with the federal government and he accused Legault of harbouring a "hidden agenda" to sow division.

In the meantime, Charest said, the party platform is very thin gruel.

"After a year of deep reflection and following a grand provincial tour, the CAQ has simply given us a new logo and a new theme, (the theme being): 'We'll see later,'" Charest quipped.

"What's this change Francois Legault is proposing? This morning he was supposed to reveal the content he's spent a year working on."

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois said her former cabinet colleague's vision was far from bold and new — but rather timid and regressive.

She noted that when she was finance minister and he was education minister, Legault would plead with her to boost hydro rates so that the extra money could be used for schools. Now that it's time to put together his own platform, Marois said, her ex-ally is far less bold.

Marois used the word, "courage," several times during a media appearance Monday, suggesting Legault lacked it.

"I question the courage of Mr. Legault, for (trying to) revolutionize the world using recipes as old as the world," Marois said.

Legault has a considerable task ahead.

He needs to build an organization, recruit 125 candidates, raise money, and prepare a more detailed election platform. An election is expected as early as next spring.

Legault also needs to complete a merger with the Action democratique du Quebec. His chances of winning an election would be significantly reduced without uniting all of the province's small-c conservatives under one tent.

That merger, in itself, will be no easy feat.

The ADQ, which nearly won an election in 2007 but has largely been an electoral dud for most of the last two decades, tilts farther to the right than Legault.

The ADQ favours an expansion of private health care and subsidies for parents who stay home to raise their kids instead of using the day-care system. Legault opposes both those ideas — but there is some common ground between the parties.

Legault noted the symbolism of the date he chose to launch his party. It was on a Nov. 14, nearly a quarter-century ago, that Air Transat made its first flight.

Legault, who co-founded the discount airline, remembered employees watching the liftoff with tears in their eyes.

He drew parallels with Monday's announcement.

"This will allow our nation to reach new heights," he said.

"(This) is a new vehicle that will bring together everyone who wishes to see Quebec start to advance again.

"A new vehicle that will see the interests of the common good placed ahead of pressure groups."