Liveblogging the Quebec election debate

Watching the main event of a surprising campaign

It’s been a long time since I liveblogged something. (Since 2009, I mostly call it “tweeting.”) But tonight, starting at 8 p.m., I’ll cover the first Quebec election leaders’ debate in “takes,” each covering maybe 10 minutes of the debate. Stay tuned, and keep staying tuned. All ages can play, and what could be more fun.

8 p.m.

Set designers for Quebec leaders’ debates favour dark themes more than federal leaders’ debates do. These four look like they’ll be confronting one another at the bottom of Mount Doom.

The terms of confrontation are bewildering: 16 face-to-face confrontations among the four leaders. It should get heated. (I’ll tell you soon whether I was right.)

François Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Québec has been melting in the polls, is up first. Even he seems to be having some difficulty manufacturing any sense of excitement.

Liberal Philippe Couillard argues for a return to “les vraies affaires….” ordinary meat-and-potatoes business of government. The contrast to Pauline Marois and the referendum-obsessed PQ is obvious.

Marois tries hard to get out of the corner her opponents have painted her into, by saying, “There will be no referendum… until Quebecers are ready for it.” Not sure that will soothe a lot of voters.

Françoise David, of the tiny Québec Solidaire movement, reintroduces herself to the audience. The more her party gains support, the more the PQ vote will fade. She represents still more trouble for Marois.

8:10 p.m.

The general tone is set early: to a question about the “horse pills” needed for an essentially unsustainable fiscal system in Quebec, the leaders offer very little in concrete terms. Marois, plainly well-briefed and high-energy, offers laughable remedies. “Electrified public transport — the largest project ever brought forward.” Like, bigger than the Pyramids?

It’s not a great sign for Couillard that Marois has brought her (at least stylistic) A game. He did no intensive debate preparation as far as anyone could tell, remaining on the campaign trail right through today. He’s a rookie leader who decided to do less debate prep than Marois, who is in her third campaign as leader. Good luck with that, M. Couillard.

8:20 p.m.

After pretty good exchanges on energy — the PQ’s plan to go prospecting for oil on Anticosti Island, and QS’s ambition for windmills — Couillard turns on Legault to accuse him of lousy economic policy. This would once have been a risky move: Legault’s CAQ was launched as the party of economic common sense, and Legault’s a former businessman, whereas Couillard’s a surgeon. And indeed, Legault blunts Couillard’s attack thusly: “Have you ever created a job? How many jobs have you created?”

So, that effectively blunted Couillard’s line of attack. I have to say, however, the Liberal leader seems poised and confident. His no-debate-prep gamble does not yet look like a big mistake.

And the general tone of this Mount Doom Debate, despite its dark colour palette, is so far quite low-key and polite. [pause] Well, that ended as soon as the two front-runners, Couillard and Marois, confronted each other on the economy. Two angry leaders talking over each other. No real winner, but the tension and bitterness in the room skyrocketed.

 8:32 p.m.

Interesting change in tone from the 2012 one-on-one debate between Marois and Jean Charest: in that debate, both leaders were defensive and angry for nearly the entire debate. Now Couillard is calmer and more patient, both than his predecessor as Liberal leader, and than Marois. She’s getting more and more exasperated. He doesn’t follow her down that path. It makes her look worse by comparison.

And she’s surrounded.  Legault calls her a liar because she didn’t deliver on a promise to eliminate a targeted health tax. It’s the kind of direct attack a front-runner would not have made, but Legault has nothing to lose. Couillard and Legault target Marois with frontal critiques of her government; David saps her appeal by providing a different example, by seeming a more poised and idealistic left-sovereignist than she does.

8:40 p.m.

This must be a frustrating debate for the growing number of Quebecers who have come to believe the provincial government is fiscally unsustainable — that it receives billions in transfers to finance more generous social programs than are available in the provinces that financed the transfers, and that Quebec still can’t manage to balance its budgets. Despite the best efforts of the moderators, nobody on this debate stage wants to talk about that state of affairs at all. It’s a too-common situation in debates. It contributes to the disillusionment in politics.

8:55 p.m.

What’s amazing, as the debate nears its halfway point, is what hasn’t been mentioned.

No mention of referendums since Marois kind-of-sort-of-announced, in the debate’s first minute, that she won’t have one (unless Quebecers “are ready for one”).

No mention of the PQ Charter of Values.

No mention of Pierre Karl Péladeau.

The polls say voters are eager to hear the economy and social issues discussed, far more than referendums and Charters. I’m inclined to believe there’s an edge of real anger and frustration in the response of respondents in polls and focus groups, because these leaders seem, every one of them, almost afraid to discuss the issues that have been filling the front pages. As though the voters would punish them for taking their eye off the ball.

9:02 p.m.

Big trouble for Couillard: the portion of the debate devoted to corruption, which has touched every corner of Quebec public life but which contributed, more than anything, to the downfall of the Charest Liberal government two years ago.

But the opening question goes (of course) to all four leaders, and Couillard escapes much of the pressure of the question. As the second of four leaders to speak, he insists he owes nothing to anyone (“except my parents and my wife”) and will be able to run a clean government.

Wow. Six minutes into this exchange, its main (and theoretically explosive) theme, corruption, has simply faded away. Marois and Legault are debating whatever pops into their heads. “It’s not spending, it’s investments,” Marois says. And something about windmills. Couillard must be almost ready to faint, he should be so relieved.

9:13 p.m.

In general, these leaders seem tactically excellent, strategically… well, mystifying. I mean, maybe they have some reason to get so bound up in the details of files that they seem to lose the big themes. We’re still in the segment of the debate that was supposed to be devoted to corruption. It’s such a big crisis, corruption, that it brought down Charest and forced the then-governing Liberals to launch the Charbonneau commission. And yet here are David and Marois debating the legacy of 2012’s red-square street protests against tuition hikes. Which is, you know, an interesting element of recent Quebec history to debate. But not really the topic of the moment.

The “corruption” debate is two-thirds over and Couillard has not had to sweat yet. Just as he hasn’t had to sweat over his contradictions on the values charter. And just as Marois hasn’t had to sweat on sovereignty. It’s a cool and powder-dry debate, this one, at the bottom of Mount Doom.

9:25 p.m.

At last, Péladeau’s name has come up in this debate — but not in the sense that he represents the PQ’s obsession with making Quebec sovereign, but rather in the sense that a media baron like him would have crazy conflicts of interest if he became a minister of (you should excuse the expression) the Crown. It’s an interesting question, a non-trivial question, and all the leaders, except Marois, are convinced that Péladeau would have to sell his Québecor shares.

A note on contrasting styles. I do believe, in general, that Marois seems the most excitable, David the most sanguine, and that Couillard’s no-prep gamble is paying off nicely with a poised performance. But I don’t want to overstate any of this. Marois is an impressive political performer with solid command of her files. Nobody is stinking out the joint. These seem like four competent, thoughtful leaders. It’s a generally pleasant and informative debate. And it’s, as a result, hard to identify plain winners and losers.

9:33 p.m.

And, at the three-quarter mark, it has to some extent finally begun. The questions now are about “the national question and identity,” i.e., referendums and Charters. Couillard hits his “vraies affaires” point hard: let’s concentrate on the economy. But David comes back: the future of Quebec is a “vraie affaire.”

Marois is pushing the brake as hard as she can on sovereignty. “No referendum until Quebecers are ready for one.” She has, by my count, repeated this line five times tonight. It’s hard to believe it would calm those Quebecers who are inclined to vote PQ but don’t want a referendum. But she’s got her talking point, it’s simple (if simply equivocal), and she won’t be budged off it.

On the Charter, a pure dialogue of the deaf. Marois brags that only the PQ supports the Charter; the others meekly criticize it. Here again, she does seek to reassure skittish voters: while conforming to dress rules will be a condition of employment, nobody will lose their job for failing to comply. Which is a heck of a contradiction, but again, maybe it will confuse a few voters.

Again and again, the calmest and most comfortable leader is Françoise David. This was the case in 2012 too, and it didn’t produce much benefit for QS in terms of seats on election night. But if Marois hoped to consolidate the sovereignist vote with her performance in this debate, David continues to frustrate that hope.

And in the debate’s closing moments, a general trend of the evening is accentuated. Marois, Legault and David are most interested in testing, critiquing, contradicting, or otherwise drawing out Couillard’s positions. Since none really succeeds in tripping him up, the net effect is to his advantage: the assumption behind their lines of argument is that he could be premier and his ideas could be tested by power. The dynamic of the debate has turned subtly favourable for Couillard.

And it wraps up. A good debate, one that as far as I could see had nothing in it to fundamentally upset the campaign. Biggest winner: David, whose tiny party has the least to lose, but also the least chance of realistic gains. Second winner: Couillard, who escapes largely unscathed, despite his cavalier approach to debate prep. Biggest loser: Marois, but I suspect it’s only a matter of very modest degree.





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