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Bill Tierney: Montreal will squander another chance to fix itself

After 15 years of experiments by the Parti Québécois, then Liberal governments with the province’s municipal structures, it’s hard to be optimistic about any new chance of reforming Montreal and its region.

Some editorial writers see the current crisis as an opportunity to introduce real and effective changes, even at the regional level. But there are several reasons why this probably won’t happen.

The first and most obvious reason is that the Parti Québécois is a minority government, which raises the risk-level of every political initiative. And recent history indicates that making major changes to the government of Montreal is a risky business. It is worth remembering that the PQ lost power in 2003 partly as a result of the political fallout of the social struggles surrounding the original mergers. I recall a harried Premier Bernard Landry publicly regretting the negative cost to the PQ of imposing mergers.

Would Pauline Marois, who lived alongside Landry through the tumult of those times, want to risk going back to that drawing board? Would the two other Quebec parties agree? Or would they see it as an opportunity to trip up the PQ?

The PQ minority government can only safely tackle issues on which there is already strong agreement.

With the two main political figures in our region, Gérald Tremblay and Gilles Vaillancourt, out of the way, that should open up an opportunity to attack the structural issues of the whole region. The two mayors were the official efenders of the status quo.

But who would lead the reform for the government? Is there a minister powerful and persuasive enough to take charge?

There is a very limited number of Quebec organizational specialists capable of playing such a challenging role. In my experience, it was always the same two or three consultants (the late Guy Coulombe, for example, who was director-general of the new Montreal for a while) showing up with mandates from Quebec City to get things done. And the men I am thinking of have already done their best for Montreal and it wasn’t good enough. Is there anyone capable of the task? If not, would the Quebec government go outside its own ranks in the search for leadership?

Another problem is that political power in Quebec is always weighted away from the Montreal region and generally even the ministers of Municipal Affairs are drawn from the regions. Take the latest minister of Municipal Affairs, Sylvain Gaudreault. He comes from the Saguenay region. I haven’t seen him working, but it’s hard to imagine him taking the lead on Montreal regional reforms even if Vaillancourt is no longer in office to block any new directions. The new minister will have a hard enough job trying to understand the structures in the big city.

The presence in the Quebec cabinet of Jean-François Lisée, minister responsible for the Montreal region, might be some encouragement to reformers. Lisée’s presence suggests that there may be a government beacon of light even if there is some doubt cast over the integrity of his political assistant, André Lavallée, ex-mayor of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie and a major figure in Tremblay’s administration.

But why would we think that Montreal politicians are ready for reform? The party structures have temporarily blurred their lines, with Tremblay’s Union party fragmenting and losing its majority, and in the circumstances there will be some obvious changes: some power-sharing, another attempt at public executive committee meetings, more power to the joint committees of council. Michael Applebaum can rearrange the deck chairs for six months.

But with the next election just 12 months away, all the current manoeuvring can be seen as positioning for the next campaign, not for a reform of Montreal.

Will the Union party survive, as Vision Montreal has survived the departure of its founder, Pierre Bourque? Will the Union members desert the party associated with Tremblay and the revelations of the Charbonneau Commission? What will be the political affiliation of Applebaum and his group of deserters from the Union party in next fall’s election? Will Applebaum try to make the council less partisan? Will he want to?

I doubt it, but in a perverse sort of way there is some satisfaction in knowing that Montreal is in the hands of a very clever West End anglophone politician who, within the space of one week, managed to transform himself from staunch Tremblay loyalist right-hand man into independent, transparent, inclusive reformer.

He’ll need every ounce of his considerable political savvy to steer Montreal through the next 12 months.

Bill Tierney is the former mayor of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. billtierney@videotron.ca

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