The man who counted
Carlos Leitao was Quebec's finance minister for a few turbulent years. Now he worries about what's coming next
On Good Friday I drove from Ottawa to Montreal, almost, stopping to park beside an unlovely office building across from a car dealership in the West Island suburb of Dollard des Ormeaux. Carlos J. Leitao, the Liberal member of Quebec’s National Assembly for the riding of Robert-Baldwin, was working alone in his office and, as far as I could ascertain, alone in the building. He greeted me without a mask and in English. I hadn’t been sure what to expect on either front. We settled down for a long talk.
We had never met. Leitao — pronounced to rhyme with “Hey Now;” it’s Portuguese — seemed to understand from the outset that I wanted to ask him about his entire political career, really his entire life. A willingness to speak frankly and with a bit of humour about politics is rare enough that I was willing to drive on a holiday to find it.
A bank economist, Leitao was elected to public office for the first time at 58 years old. He was Quebec’s finance minister from 2014 to 2018, under premier Philippe Couillard. When next they faced the voters, the Liberals suffered their worst electoral defeat in history, with not quite 25% of the vote. The only consolation was that their lifelong rivals, the Parti Québécois, did worse. The two parties’ drubbings are, of course, related.
There will be another election this October. The Liberals are not sure of doing any better this time than last. Many Liberals from Leitao’s era have announced they won’t run again. He hasn’t decided yet.
He was born in 1956 in Peniche, a fishing town 100 km north of Lisbon. When he was a teenager his father got a job in Mozambique. “I guess we were a perfect example of a family that believed government propaganda. We thought we were moving to a Portuguese province and everything was beautiful there. We quickly discovered that was not the case.” Anti-colonialist revolution sent the Leitaos home to Portugal. Democratic revolution at home sent them to Canada, eventually to Montreal’s Little Portugal neighbourhood around St. Laurent Blvd. His father helped develop the Santa Cruz church and community centre. “It wasn’t a rich community but people participated,” Leitao recalls. “Giving money. Actually working — the construction of the thing. Which got us in trouble with the unions, but anyway.”
Leitao studied economics at McGill and got a job as a bank manager, then in the economics department of the Royal Bank. By 2013 he was chief economist at the Laurentian Bank. The Parti Québécois government under Pauline Marois introduced their Charter of Values, which would have forbidden most public servants from wearing prominent religious garb. “I found it completely upsetting,” Leitao said. “So that was getting me riled up.” (In office, the Couillard Liberals would introduce their own, milder compromise bill against face coverings, upon which I heaped scorn here.)
The other thing that nudged Leitao into the arms of the Quebec Liberals was the PQ’s first budget in 2013. Marois’s government pushed back its balanced-budget target by two years. As the Laurentian Bank’s chief economist, Leitao gave some interviews, calling the PQ budget “a failure” and wondering when the PQ would ever hope to balance its budget. Somebody in the government, Leitao says, grumbled to his bosses. “That got me upset. I guess it had the opposite effect because it made me more determined to criticize their approach.”
When the Liberals came to inquire about this bank economist who was already fighting their fights, he didn’t hesitate long. Meetings with Couillard went well. Leitao was handed the nomination in one of the safest Liberal ridings in the province. One of his few challenges was smoothing ruffled feathers in the Robert-Baldwin riding association, which had thought it would be left to choose its own candidate.
When the 2014 election began the Liberals were running third, behind the PQ incumbents and the upstart CAQ, led by the former airline executive and PQ cabinet minister François Legault. Legault might have won if a star PQ candidate, publisher Pierre-Karl Péladeau, hadn’t pumped his fist in the air during a campaign rally and vowed to “make of Quebec a country.” Liberals climb in polls when the PQ is trying to climb out of Canada. Leitao found himself the finance minister of a new Liberal government.
To get everything I write here, don’t forget to subscribe.
What surprised him about governing? “Everything surprised me because I had never been in this world.” Many of the surprises were pleasant. Being finance minister was exhilarating. “The team in the finance department is very, very professional. Those folks know what they're talking about.” As a bonus, '“there were things we could do! It wasn’t just an intellectual discussion. We could translate that into public policy. I loved it.
“Then comes the politics of it.” Leitao paused and chuckled. Dealing with the “theatre” of Question Period, or even the give-and-take of cabinet government, was less appealing.
“Sometimes your friends are not really your friends. Sometimes your enemies are not really your enemies. Sometimes you get stuck in discussions about subsidiary issues, but it become really, really important.”
There’s a science magazine for bright schoolkids in Quebec called Les Débrouillards. Early in his tenure as finance minister, Leitao learned its budget had been eliminated. This is a nightmare scenario in politics. At the federal level, its equivalent is the looming fear that bureaucrats will push back against budget cuts by axing the RCMP musical ride or the Snowbirds.
“Somehow it became my fault,” Leitao said of the discovery that his government had launched a vendetta against Quebec’s nerdy kids. “And then when I go back and try to find out, ‘Why did we do this?’ — everybody hides.”
To love politics, Leitao soon concluded, “you need to have a kind of temperament that I didn’t have and still don’t have. In the business world, when we make a decision, you know, we can discuss, you can even throw insults at each other. But at some point we make a decision. ‘That’s it. We go this way.’ That’s it.
“And in politics, nothing is ever final. Everything has a way of coming back. And issues I thought were settled? No, they were never settled. It always comes back.”
Being a Liberal in Quebec meant, inevitably, dealing with the heritage of a certain kind of Liberal politics. “I think the worst period of my political life was, for 13 months I was Treasury Board president as well as finance minister.” If the latter sets the government’s financial policy, the former is responsible for executing it. Having that job also made Leitao the minister responsible for answering new questions about the goings-on at the SIQ, a defunct crown corporation that used to handle the government’s real-estate transactions. There were allegations of kickbacks and corruption involving Liberal Party fundraisers.
“I was trying to get answers, but I had no idea. It had all happened 10 years earlier. No idea.” Every few days there’d be a new story and Leitao would ask the Treasury department to chase down some answers. “I was always one step behind the questions. There were always new revelations coming up — new to me — and I could never get an exact view of what was going on.”
Some of his colleagues didn’t exactly rush to his side. “I was pretty much alone. The other members of cabinet, some of them were there before. And it was like the Monty Python thing. They all start looking around and everybody moves away. And they leave me there. That I found very annoying, very surprising. I never got any straight answers. And yes, there was something fishy going on.”
Did his own political party want him to find answers? “I don’t know. I don’t.”
Some consolation could be had in the conviction that he was, at least, also responsible for writing budgets. I asked Leitao about how much autonomy and authority he had in his main role. Was he sure he was really the finance minister and not a figurehead?
“Ultimately it was always up to me,” he said. “I could always have said no. Nothing was done that was imposed on me.” It’s interesting phrasing: it suggests he would be informed of large processes already underway, and could then decide whether to stop or steer them. On smaller things, his authority would be limited because he was simply outgunned by his officials. “Obviously the sous-ministre [deputy minister, the veteran civil servant who ran the department] and the bureaucracy, they had been there much longer than I was, So they knew — we joked about ‘les cachettes du ministère,’” the departmental hiding places.
His two hardest budgets were the first and the last. In 2014 the Liberals had just been elected and they had barely five weeks to deliver a budget. In 2018 they were trying to get re-elected, which meant the finance minister wasn’t really running the show any more.
“How can I say this? Let’s say, spending was much stronger than I would have liked. The bureau du premier ministre had some influence.”
I remember that 2018 campaign. At every stop Couillard would announce, not one signature initiative, but a dozen little things you’d forget before he was back on his tour bus. At the time I toyed with the notion that this was somehow brilliant politics. Leitao is sure it was not. “All the ideas and programs and projects that had kind of accumulated over the previous three, four years, of all the different departments that were always shot down. And then, boom, in the last budget: Everything. The budget document was huge. There were way too many programs.”
So far we had covered cabinet, the National Assembly, the premier’s office and the campaign trail. Who else does a provincial cabinet minister have to deal with? The feds.
“I was accused of many things,” Leitao said wryly when I began my segue. “I was accused of being friends with Bill Morneau. Yes, I got along well with him. Was that a crime?”
I mostly wondered about working with two successive federal governments, Stephen Harper’s and Justin Trudeau’s. Was there a difference?
“Yes. Huge change. Stephen Harper, it’s his own personality, is a cool person. I actually met him a couple of times and he was always very detached. Very cool. Not a warm person.
“In policy terms, though, his was a government that believed in allowing the provinces a lot more autonomy. And he made no secrets about it. So on a purely technical basis, like program discussions, the relations were cordial. In terms of transfers, no — the provinces always want much more money than the feds are willing to give them. But there was a willingness to let provinces make decisions, especially in areas that concern provincial jurisdiction — health, education, even infrastructure. The minister of finance at the time, Joe Oliver — again, not a fellow who we would go fishing together. But again, very cordial.
“Then there’s a change in government, M. Trudeau comes along, and we do notice a difference. On a personal basis it was much better. More relaxed to talk to them, to joke around. And we could always pick up the phone — something that with Mr. Harper was a lot more, ‘No no no no. The proper channels. You don’t just pick up the phone and call the minister.’ With the government of Justin Trudeau, we’d pick up the phone.
“But on policy issues, the federal machine, the federal bureaucracy, I guess they got the signal — whether it was explicit or implicit — ‘Wait a minute. These provinces, they want to go in all directions? No no no.’ So there was a kind of attempt by the Finance department to re-centralize things.”
The personal relationships between politicians provided avenues of appeal. At least sometimes. “But one area —” Leitao paused and considered. “I’m going to get into trouble but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s important.
“The one area that became really problematic was in health care. Mme Philpott. I don’t know her, I never spoke with her before, and even when I was there we only spoke briefly. But there was a much more blunt approach to the Canada Health Act. ‘This is it, this is what we do, and there is no moving away from the dogma.’”
Much of the complaint Leitao proceeded to lay out about his federal Liberal cousins was stuff I’m pretty sure the Trudeau crew would be comfortable bragging about. Or at least, they would if they were still on good terms with Jane Philpott. On health care, the two parties’ visions have long been essentially irreconcilable.
“There were things we were doing in Quebec that were perhaps pushing the limit on the Canada Health Act,” Leitao acknowledged. “But at the same time, those were the things that allowed the system to deliver the services.” What sort of things? “Extra billing. I’m not saying that’s a wonderful thing. And yes, it was kind of on the limits of the Canada Health Act. But at the same time, that’s what kept the doctors’ offices functioning and helping out and delivering the services.
“I had conversations with some doctors and I said, ‘Why do you need to charge 50 bucks for this or that? What’s that to you? It’s a couple of thousand bucks at the end of the year.’ ‘Ah! It’s the principle of the thing!’ So anyway, we had serious discussions on that, and then we had ultimatums from Ottawa. ‘You need to put an end to that, or else.’”
And did those practices end? “They did. They ended abruptly.” But that concession by the Quebec side, delivered over doctors’ objections, poisoned the atmosphere for later confrontations, Leitao said. His colleague, the Liberal health minister Gaétan Barrette, launched an ambitious administrative reform of the health-care system. “It became a much more antagonistic relationship with our own doctors, even though, on a budgetary level, we were talking a relatively small amount” of service fees that doctors could no longer collect. “A relatively small amount of money that creates a huge backlash and helped disorganize a system that was going through a huge structural reform.
“We didn’t need that. We didn’t need to be hit by a train called Philpott.”
By now I had covered most of the issues I wanted to ask Leitao about. I was left with the obvious question, the question that hangs in the air whenever there’s a Couillard Liberal in a room.
The Quebec Liberal Party didn’t merely lose in 2018. It suffered its worst defeat since Confederation. Why?
“Two reasons,” Leitao said briskly. Of course it’s the kind of question he had already had plenty of time to contemplate.
“The campaign itself. We had a terrible campaign. As a reflection of the famous last budget where we were going in all directions, our campaign in 2018 was going in all directions. We were offering everything to everybody, and nobody could understand what we were up to.
“And then the second thing, we didn’t see it, didn’t want to see it, was that politics was taking a turn to a much more identity-based politics. La défense de la nation.” The defence of the Quebec nation — against the English, against outsiders.
“I remember going door to door in some ridings in the Montreal area. Ridings we lost. ‘Vous les libéraux,’” — here Leitao was imitating what he would hear from voters at the door. “‘Vous laissez entrer tout le monde.’” You Liberals are letting everyone in. “‘Regarde-moi ça, le chemin Roxham…’” Now Leitao’s composite voter was complaining about Roxham Road, a footpath south of Montreal that thousands of asylum seekers used to flee the United States into Canada by foot after Donald Trump’s election.
Immigration enforcement isn’t provincial jurisdiction, Leitao would protest. Ask the feds. That answer usually wouldn’t get him far. “‘Libéraux, vous êtes tous les mêmes…’” You Liberals are all alike.
Leitao, who spoke schoolboy French and English when he landed in Canada and who applied to both French- and English-language universities when the time came, has rarely had to face accusations of not being a proper Quebecer. He started to hear it in 2018, he said.
“We didn’t see it,” he said of the stew of legitimate insecurity, gusting to nastier impulses, that has come to characterize so much of contemporary politics, and hardly only in Quebec. “Or we didn’t want to see it, and we didn’t know exactly how to react to it.”
Donald Trump, Brexit, the yellow-vest protests in France and copycat protests closer to home. Leitao ran through the list, aware that he was describing disparate movements in dissimilar countries, but preoccupied with similarities.
“How do mainstream political parties react to these movements? We haven’t always reacted in the best of ways. Like Hillary Clinton, ‘the deplorables,’ that’s not a good way. At the same time, you know, science is science. I can’t say that vaccines are bad. We haven’t found a way, and I think we have to, we haven’t found a way to properly respond to these things.
“Now, right here, right now there’s a lot of anger at the rise in the cost of living. The reaction from politicians — and I’m the first among them — when people talk about that and say maybe we should reduce gasoline taxes: ‘What a terrible idea.’ And it’s not a good idea. But maybe find other ways of saying it. Show a little sympathy for the fact that it now takes 100 bucks to fill up your car. ‘Take public transit.’ Yeah, right. Not everyone can take public transit. And we haven’t said a word about climate change, the climate emergency.”
By now, Leitao had arrived at the point where more talking wasn’t particularly helping. It’s easier for anyone to list the problems that plague our politics than to identify answers. If Carlos Leitao had all the answers — well, he wouldn’t be in politics, because nobody in politics ever has all the answers. It’s an irreducibly human pursuit. Which is why it’s always been so fascinating to cover.
“So, mainstream politics, we have to find a way to address very real concerns,” Leitao said. “And provide an alternative solution to folks that feel clearly uneasy, without pushing them to the extremist parties. Because the extremist parties exist.”