Quebec’s election debate: Veiled threats

Pauline Marois must hope her comeback starts tonight

Pauline Marois seems like such a nice lady, but her absurd one-on-one slanging match with Jean Charest in 2012 stands as one of the least edifying televised debates I’ve ever seen. (The former premier shares as much blame as his successor for that mess.) In theory, tonight’s debate will be a less gruesome affair, because instead of a cage match it is a traditional confrontation among the leaders of all four major-ish parties: Marois for the PQ, Philippe Couillard for the Liberals, François Legault for the Swiftly Fading François Legault Party, and Françoise David for Québec Solidaire.

But whatever the tone, the smell of high stakes will certainly be in the air (high stakes smell minty, thanks for asking): the latest numbers from reputable pollsters suggest there’s already been a roughly seven-point swing from Marois’s PQ to Couillard’s Liberals, which is enough to make a PQ majority a much longer shot than it seemed when this campaign began. With election day on April 7, Marois still has plenty of time to regain momentum. But she needs to start. Tonight would be a good time to get cracking on that.

The contours of her dilemma are by now well known. She would like this election to be a referendum on the Charter of Quebec Values, which seeks to legislate conformity of dress among Quebecers who draw a government paycheque. I could describe the bill a bunch of other ways, but we’ve been over this ground many times. Anyway, the Charter works well for the PQ: only Marois’s party supports firing emergency-room doctors for wearing kippahs, a proposal that is wildly popular among francophone voters, so the other parties must split the remainder of the vote among them.

Or at least that would be the situation if the Charter were the most salient feature of the current campaign’s debates. Since it started raining bad polls, the PQ has sought to boost the Charter’s prominence, including with this new video whose only spokesman is the party’s most popular cabinet minister, the former TV reporter Bernard Drainville:

But unfortunately, the PQ needs Drainville now because it spent the campaign’s first half waving around its wild-eyed minion-crushing megalomaniac star recruit, Pierre Karl Warbucks, who would like to break up Canada. When our cover asked, “Is This The Man Who Will Break Up Canada?,” it was mostly rhetorical: as everyone in Quebec knows, he would if he could. Or rather, he will if he can.

Peladeau’s role in the PQ is a bit like The Hulk’s in The Avengers: Everyone knows he’s where the real clout is, but nobody knows how to control him. As soon as Marois pointed at him, he promptly turned green and crashed the helicarrier. Couillard, an owlish and glib man who likes to make contradictory claims for his Quebec Liberals on successive days, has been cakewalking in the polls ever since Peladeau jumped into politics. He cannot have hoped he would have it so easy. We are left to wonder why Peladeau is so much better for Couillard’s ratings than he ever was for Krista Erickson’s.

The fear for Liberals is that tonight, the first time a large number of Quebecers has paid serious attention to Couillard, he will blow his momentum. The fear for Péquistes is that Marois will become more thoroughly attached to the secession narrative, which is not good for her, than to the firing-weirdo-religionist agenda, which (to my sorrow) gives her wings. It’ll be fun to see her try to deny that she is in politics to leave Canada, without quite denying it. It’s not as though it’s a secret. The side of her bus says DETERMINEE. Everyone knows what it is she’s determined to do.