Martin C. Barry
When you consider that Quebec Liberal Party leadership aspirant Alexandre Cusson devoted himself mostly until now to municipal politics and only recently decided to jump to the provincial level, it might be easy to dismiss him as an interloper seizing on an opportunity.
Us and them
However, there are a few things that need to be known and understood about Cusson before passing judgment. Perhaps one of the first is his disdain for some of the policies of the current CAQ government.
“We have to put an end to the us and them outlook that is currently the practice of the Legault government,” Cusson said in an interview with Newsfirst Multimedia, alluding to the CAQ’s overall outlook as expressed in legislation such as Bill 21 banning religious symbols.
Prior to the announcement of his interest in seeking the PLQ leadership last November, Alexandre Cusson was probably best known as the mayor Drummondville, the 15th largest municipality in Quebec.
After spending the first 25 years of his working life as a teacher and senior administrator at a private school and junior college in Drummondville, Cusson was elected mayor of Drummondville in 2013 with 70 per cent support from voters.
After winning a second term in 2017, he became the head of the Quebec Union of Municipalities. In that capacity, he signed an important new fiscal pact between the provinces and Quebec with the Legault government.
Memories of Bourassa
What is perhaps not as well known about Alexandre Cusson is that his involvement with the Quebec Liberal Party actually goes way back. Cusson first signed on as a card-carrying PLQ member in the early 1980s.
The 51-year-old recalled a meeting of PLQ youth wing members who gathered at the Paul Sauvé Arena in Montreal in 1985 to welcome Robert Bourassa back following the former premier’s decade-long absence from Quebec politics. This was a few weeks before the 1985 election that saw Bourassa come back into office. Alexandre Cusson is not the first and probably not the last politician who starts out defining himself politically through early adhesion to a political party, then spending years (and sometimes decades) pursuing other goals, only to return to the original fold in the end.
Return to the Liberals
Perhaps the most noteworthy alternate example of this phenomenon is former NDP leader Tom Mulcair. After first joining the NDP in 1974, Mulcair got into provincial politics, representing Chomedey for the PLQ from 1994 to 2007 and serving in the cabinet. After suddenly leaving the Jean Charest government, he became active again with the NDP, becoming the party’s leader in 2012.
“Obviously when I became mayor, I was fully involved with that and I was no longer involved with the Liberals,” said Cusson, noting that he renewed his PLQ membership only recently. “But I have always been Liberal,” he added.
Two-way leadership race
Whether it’s a new face or simply one that hasn’t been seen in a long time, Cusson’s decision to toss his hat in for the Liberal leadership assures the party will indeed have a race, rather than a coronation, which would have been the case with the only other candidate, Saint-Henri/Sainte-Anne Liberal MNA Dominique Anglade, in the running.
Still, as someone renewing himself with the Liberals, the prospect of Cusson winning raises the possibility he might see his next task as a reform of the PLQ following decades during which the party has been dominated by insiders.
Does PLQ need reforming
“As I am always repeating, we must give our party back to its activists,” Cusson replied when the reform issue was put to him. “What we notice is that over the last few years we haven’t been communication as much with our activists. We haven’t been listening to them as much. And so we have to enhance our chances.
“The Liberal Party is one which has an interesting structure,” he continued, referring to several of the party’s committees that were set up to take a constant reading of the pulse of the membership.
“We have to listen to them. We have to take the time to meet them. And I have made the commitment not only to listen to our province-wide committees, but also to listen extremely carefully to the local riding committees. It’s the best way to reconnect with Quebec as a whole.”
Seeking the rural vote
As things now stand in the seat layout at the Quebec National Assembly, two out of the four parties have a base of seats that is predominantly rural. For the Parti Québécois that has almost always been the case, while the current CAQ government also has virtually all its seats in rural areas. Conversely, the PLQ’s voter base is now almost entirely in the metropolitan Montreal region, following the party’s disastrous results in the last election.
With his distinctly rural roots, the prospect of Alexandre Cusson winning the PLQ leadership could provide the Liberals with a new lease on life by allowing the party to tap into this vast reservoir of rural votes – albeit possibly while further polarizing the provincial political spectrum and alienating the Montreal region even more.
And yet, Cusson seemed to suggest, it might be the best route to bring back voters. “If we want to see the Liberal Party of Quebec become the party that governs Quebec, it’s impossible to think that it’s only with Montreal and the region that it’s going to happen,” he said.
Sees Quebec ‘as a whole’
“When the Quebec Liberal Party was in power, it’s because it had people from all over Quebec. For me it’s not a question of whether we are party that takes care of the regions or one that pays more attention to the metropolitan region. Quebec has to be taken into account as a whole.”
If there remain valuable votes to be won in rural Quebec, it might also be remembered that the CAQ won their landslide in late 2018 after promising and then passing Bill 21, which appealed mostly to French-speaking Québécois rural voters who felt their values were threatened by the rising presence of immigrants.
Would re-write Bill 21
Still, Cusson insisted, Bill 21 runs counter to fundamental Quebec Liberal Party principles. He said the PLQ, under his leadership, would replace the legislation with something that doesn’t undermine individual freedoms.
On the question of PLQ reform, Cusson said he’s not sure the word reform is appropriate to describe what he has in mind. “But at least it would be to have our party function as it is supposed to,” he said.
“The National Policy Committee, which is the soul of our party and which sets our vision for Quebec, works very hard. But over the past few years, it hasn’t been listening very carefully.
Touching base with activists
“So it’s not a reform of the party’s structure, so much as the attitude, presence on the field, being near the activists and hearing them, showing that we’re interested in what they have to say. To me that’s what’s important.”
Despite repeated accusations and tentative police investigations of alleged corruption within the Quebec Liberal Party, Cusson said he is confident the party has been operating honestly and on the level.
“I am convinced that at the Liberal Party of Quebec ethical behaviour is there and is exemplary,” he said, although he acknowledged that a perception of corruption within the PLQ and other parties remains in the minds of many Quebecers.