Money and politics: resignation announcements hit Quebec Liberals ahead of fall vote

News that several Quebec Liberals won't seek re-election this year has fuelled speculation the governing party's boat is sinking, but former politicians caution against assuming that is the main reason behind the impending departures.

No fewer than 14 Liberal members of the legislature, including five cabinet ministers, have announced they won't seek re-election. 

Four others, including two ministers and the Speaker, are also said to be considering their political future ahead of the Oct. 1 vote.

While Premier Philippe Couillard's party is completing just its first mandate, the Liberals have been in power for 13 of the last 15 years and are polling consistently behind the Coalition Avenir Quebec.

Marlene Jennings, who represented a Montreal-area riding for the federal Liberals from 1997 to 2011, says money, rather than pessimistic readings of the polls, has more to do with some of the departures.

In late 2015, the legislature unanimously adopted a law removing the automatic right to a cash payment for retiring politicians.

Politicians in Quebec are given a so-called transition allowance based on their salary and time spent in office.

A veteran politician who has served in cabinet is eligible to receive up to about $167,000 in a lump sum payment or divided over a period of up to 36 months.

Before the rule change, some members would run for a second, third or fourth term and quit during their mandate, collecting the money and triggering a costly byelection.

The new rules stipulate departing members can only collect transition allowances if they complete their term in office, with strict exceptions.

"I think for some, (they are leaving) precisely because they aren't sure if their party will form the next government,'' Jennings said in an interview. 
"Maybe internal polls are showing their personal victory is not guaranteed.''

But for others, "their decision (to retire) has been precipitated by a change in rules,'' she said.

"That is clearly, for some of them, why they are leaving now. If you step down before the end of your four-year mandate you get squat.''

A stint on the opposition benches is not necessarily something politicians dread, however, said Clifford Lincoln, who served in office at the federal and provincial level.

Lincoln entered Quebec politics in the early '80s in opposition during Rene Levesque's last mandate, a job he said he enjoyed.

"I like debating and the parliamentary jousts and challenges,'' he said in an email. He sat in cabinet during Robert Bourassa's Liberal government in the late '80s before winning a Montreal-area federal seat in 1993.

Out of all three positions in politics - opposition, provincial cabinet minister, and federal MP on the government side - he said he liked the latter the least.

"As an MP on the government side ... I found the most difficult and least stimulating,'' he said. 

"If you are an action person with ideas and convictions, it becomes a tough challenge to endure.''

And while 20 per cent of Liberals won't be seeking re-election - a percentage that could increase to more than 25 if rumours about the other four members are true - the party still has a young and promising lineup of people.

Transport Minister Andre Fortin, 36, Economy Minister Dominique Anglade, 44, and Education Minister Sebastien Proulx, 43, are some of those considered rising stars in the party.

And just a few days ago, well-known entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer announced he will chair the Liberals' re-election campaign.

When it comes to political donations, however, it is neither the Liberals nor the Coalition who are shining, but rather the third-placed Parti Quebecois.

The PQ, with 28 seats in the legislature, collected $838,000 in donations in 2017, the Liberals, who have 68 seats, $769,000, and Quebec solidaire, with three seats, $331,000. 

The Coalition, the front-runner in the polls and with 21 seats, came in last, with $258,000.

As of early May, the PQ maintained its lead in 2018 donations, with $547,000, the Liberals were second with $247,000 and Quebec solidaire was third with $200,000. 

The Coalition was again last, with $173,000 collected so far this year.