MONTREAL - It didn't take long for the star candidate par excellence of the current Quebec election campaign to take his first political lumps.
In fact, it took less than 24 hours.
An anti-corruption crusader who is the person perhaps most responsible for forcing the government to call a public inquiry, Jacques Duchesneau enlivened the campaign with his entrance over the weekend.
By Monday morning, he was being publicly contradicted by his leader.
The corruption whistleblower told a Montreal radio station that he — and not just the premier — would be responsible for picking ministers in certain departments under a future Coalition avenir Quebec government.
He revealed that while he was being courted, his leader, Francois Legault, had offered him a potential role as minister of public security. Duchesneau refused. He said he wasn't interested in handling forest fires and floods and other things that might pop up under that portfolio.
Finally, they agreed his future role would be to serve as minister responsible for fighting corruption. He would oversee the file in various government departments, even picking the ministers who ran those departments, he said in the radio interview.
"If I'm entering politics it's to attack corruption — nothing else," he told 98.5 FM.
"I want to be the conductor for all the ministers who deal with it."
The comments forced his leader to issue a quick clarification. He told reporters that he, as premier, would choose his ministers.
"What I said to Mr. Duchesneau is that I would consult with him on (appointments to) four departments," Legault said. "It's the prerogative of the premier to choose his ministers…
"There will be only one boss."
The fact that such specific responsibilities have been assigned in a future government — and discussed publicly — has raised some eyebrows. The party began the campaign last week in third place, according to polls, although the numbers suggested a possible three-way race.
Duchesneau's entry has since brought a burst of attention to the Coalition, which is running in its first election.
When reports of his candidacy first surfaced, it was described by pundits as a potential game-changer. But there were also warnings Legault might have a hard time corralling the egos of some of his recruits. Duchesneau has been involved in famous run-ins with past work colleagues.
To Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois, the whole arrangement reeks of amateur hour. Making such promises is foolhardy before a party gets elected and before Duchesneau even wins his seat, which is in what's considered a safe PQ area.
"It's amateurish," Marois said. She noted that Legault couldn't blame it on inexperience — the two served together in previous PQ cabinets.
"It's also a lack of understanding of how a government functions. It surprises me a lot from Mr. Legault, who knows a bit how things work."
Liberal Leader Jean Charest quipped: "Will Francois Legault handle the Twitter account and cocktail fundraisers, while Jacques Duchesneau handles the rest?"
He also heaped scorn on the suggestion, from Legault, that Duchesneau would be like Quebec's Eliot Ness. Charest drily observed that Ness was a police officer — but not a politician.
Duchesneau, former chief of Montreal's police force, was hired by the Charest government to investigate corruption. He essentially forced the government to call an inquiry by leaking a secret report, which he had authored, to the media.
His participation in the race prompted questions to Charest about whether that one event might singlehandedly change the campaign. Charest played down such talk. He pointed to Monday's confusion as proof that things can change very quickly in politics.
"The game's not over yet," he said.
"Things are evolving."
The most recent polls suggested a tight race, with the pro-independence PQ holding a slight edge entering the campaign. Quebecers vote Sept. 4.
Monday's remarks were a bit of a distraction as the Coalition Avenir Quebec (Coalition for Quebec's Future) planned to address another subject: economic interventionism.
Legault said he would instruct the giant provincial pension-fund manager, the Caisse de depot, to direct $5 billion of its total $160 billion in assets to buy a minority stake in large commodities projects.
He would also invest more heavily in big Quebec companies to ward off foreign takeovers, like Lowe's bid to buy the Rona hardware-store chain.
"In Quebec we need to learn to take chances — calculated chances," Legault said. "We don't take risks anymore in Quebec."
As for the risks inherent in governments picking winners and losers in the economy, Legault said: "What matters is the batting average... There will always be failures, but if we fear failure too much, we'll stifle entrepreneurship in Quebec."
Legault promised that a Coalition government would dedicate 100 per cent of all future mining and gas royalties to paying down the debt, which stands at 55 per cent of the province's GDP and is the highest of all provinces.
The PQ was also talking about oil royalties — although the message was a bit unclear.
After spending months playing up the economic potential of the Old Harry site in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence the PQ suggested it might never drill there, depending on the results of environmental studies.
Marois hopes to win the seat in the Magdalen Islands, where sentiments are divided on oil development.
The PQ also sought to reclaim the corruption fight as its electoral issue, after having some of its thunder stolen over the weekend by Duchesneau joining the Coalition.
Several PQ members held a press conference to denounce a land deal involving the government and a well-connected construction family.
The PQ alleged that the F. Catania Foundation received, for $600,000, a piece of land that belonged to a provincially run school board on the understanding in 2008 it would build a community centre.
The centre was never built and the land was sold for $1.6 million a year later to a private developer, the according to the PQ.
The PQ said the land should have been given back to the school board and it accused the government of abandoning the public interest in order to provide preferential treatment to its friends.
The PQ has in recent years repeatedly accused the government of pay-for-play schemes in which donors to the Liberal party receive lucrative government business.
In holding the news conference as a group Monday, the PQ sought to illustrate a point: that recruiting Duchesneau is fine, but that it takes a larger team to conduct research and prevent corruption.
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