Paul Wells on the Quebec leaders' debate

Political editor Paul Wells with his thoughts on tonight's debate. Follow along, starting at 8 p.m. EST.

Parti Quebecois Pauline Marois speaks to the media following the leaders debate in Montreal, March 20, 2014.

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois speaks to the media following the debate in Montreal on March 20, 2014.

Quebec political leaders face off in their final debate Thursday before voters head to the polls on April 7. Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells will follow the action and will offer his thoughts here as the debate occurs. The debate runs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST.

8 p.m.

It’s kind of nutty how much the tension has gone up since the first debate only a week ago. Mostly because the polls suggest Philippe Couillard’s Liberals have overtaken Pauline Marois’s incumbent PQ. This unleashed the dogs of negative campaigning, and the past few days have seen all sorts of allegations of financial skullduggery going in every direction. It’s become a nasty campaign suddenly.

And yet in the first few minutes, this second-round debate is weirdly calm. It begins with Couillard facing François Legault, the leader of the upstart (and sputtering) Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). Just the two of them. (The rubric of this debate is Faces à Face TVA, the face-to-face debates.) Sitting down. Chatting about how many general practitioners and emergency-room physicians there are in Quebec.

The tone continues when Françoise David of the upstart (and performing-slightly-better-than-expected) Québec Solidaire sits down face-to-face with Marois. All highly wonky and mostly quite civil.

I suspect it’s because most analysts and insta-polls suggested the big winners last time were David and Couillard, the calmer debaters, over the hotter and more excitable Legault and Marois. Lessons learned, everyone’s sitting down to tonight’s exchanges determined to keep things light and easy.

We’ll see.

8:10 p.m.

Am I the only person whose hair stands up whenever Legault says “Ce qu’on a besoin…”? Apparently you get to run an airline in Quebec (as Legault used to do) without learning relative pronouns.

This whole exchange on health care is kind of nostalgic for me. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the debate between Jacques Parizeau and the then-incumbent Liberal premier Daniel Johnson, which everyone knew was mostly a debate about unity vs. separatism but which turned, to a great extent, around health care reform. Parizeau couldn’t believe wait times were as long as they were. Twenty years later, the successors of these leaders are debating the same question. Cautionary tale.

Ooh, Legault vs. David! Pee break.

And just in time, because the moderator is asking Couillard and Marois about ethics. “I won’t accept that we be compared,” Marois says sharply. When the police came to her party’s headquarters, she says, they called ahead.

8:23 p.m.

The ethics debate continues. Don’t ask Marois about her husband! Don’t ask Couillard about Arthur Porter, the shadowy figure who managed to get put in charge of the McGill University superhospital and the federal Security Intelligence Review Committee and then turned out to be (reputedly) crooked as a snake’s back! They don’t like it one bit.

The debate opens to all four leaders. Both Legault and David turn on Couillard, not Marois. His reward for being front-runner: He’s a bigger target.

“Do you find that morally acceptable?” Françoise David asks about Couillard’s decision to put money he earned in Saudi Arabia into a bank in the Channel island of Jersey. Sure, he says. It was all out in the open — including in my divorce settlement, “which somebody took the trouble to go and look at in Sherbrooke.”

So it’s turning into that kind of debate.

8:30 p.m.

Legault on Marois, and the specific topic is patronage appointments. Why did you make a bunch of patronage appointments, Legault asks? Marois could have said: Because unlike you, I won the 2012 election. But that would be less than edifying, so what she does is consistently refuse to answer his forced yes-or-no questions. It kind of comes out like this:

FL: Pourquoi avez-vous — 

PM: M. Legault — 

FL: Pourquoi vous avez —

PM: M. Legault — 

FL: Mme Marois — 

PM: M. Legault, comment pouvez-vous — 

FL: — les copains d’abord — 

and so on. The good news is, if you don’t read French, you’re not missing anything.

Legault, who used to be the rising star of Quebec politics, a corporate titan turned sovereignist Great White Hope — essentially, the Pierre Karl Péladeau of 1999 — has been fading in the polls and has clearly decided he has nothing to lose. So he has transformed into a battle drone. Wind him up and he flies up the nose of whoever he’s facing. To some extent this debate will turn on who, of Couillard and Marois, can stay calmest while Legault shoves an endless succession of shave bombs under their doors.

8:38 p.m.

And we’re on to the economy. “How will you create good, well-paying, permanent jobs?”

Couillard says you have to encourage business creation because it’s not governments that create jobs, it’s business. Marois says her government has presented an excellent four-part plan: electrifying public transit, encouraging research and innovation, and having an extraordinary plan. That’s three parts, I know. It’s hard to keep up sometimes.

Couillard says Quebec is different from the rest of Canada because it has more small and medium-sized businesses. So he’s going to encourage them to export and otherwise thrive.

Basically they both want to have a lot of plans. Marois will have more plans than Couillard.

8:50 p.m.

Ooh, an interesting tactical choice from Couillard. Battle Drone Legault tries to fly up his nose again, asking whether there’s any difference between Couillard and his (theoretically discredited) predecessor, Jean Charest, or is he just copy-pasting Charest-ism into his 2014 platform? Couillard says, hey, buddy, I don’t need to run you down. You’ve got this Plan St. Laurent (basically a maritime infrastructure platform along the St. Lawrence River) that’s based on free trade, and it’s lovely and interesting, and as premier, I’ll want to incorporate all sorts of good ideas like that.

It’s judo, and it suggests Couillard understands, better than the others, that the goal in a political debate is not to plant one’s opponents six feet under the daisies. It’s to appear, in highly artificial circumstances, like a good head of government. Getting the difference between the two was what helped Couillard — and, oddly, Françoise David, who has the least chance of being premier one day — win the last debate. Tonight I think the contrasts are still there, although not as stark. Marois is not as much on the attack tonight; Legault sure is, but to the extent this election comes down to PQ-or-Liberals, the contrast between Couillard and Marois is smaller than last time.

9 p.m.

The question of the spring in Quebec: Is our fiscal profile even sustainable? Debt’s increasing. What would you cut? Not a thing, David says: What’s needed is “more revenue for the state.”

Couillard says what’s needed is a plan to reduce debt-to-GDP, in other words a relatively gentle medium-term austerity plan. But he lists all the things that need more spending (infrastructure first), and does not mention anything that needs cutting. Which kind of brings us back to the original question.

The whole exchange is a festival of magic thinking. How do you get rid of a deficit without increasing revenues? “By managing finances well,” Marois says. Green eyeshades, everyone! If we just straighten the columns in this spreadsheet, the deficit will take care of itself!


I wish they could do something to break these things up a bit. Maybe Pierre Karl Péladeau could come in, do a little fist-bump, and then Marois could push him off.

Couillard and David face of on the economy. They agree about just about nothing — David is the standard-bearer for a sort of nostalgic, mildly Trotskyist, vision of the gently ever-expanding state, and Couillard is a rich brain surgeon who stashed his Saudi money in Jersey — but the soft reasonable tone of their exchange must leave at least a few viewers wondering whether it’s possible to have a Liberal-QS coalition government.

9:17 p.m.

Oh, thank God, they’re on to the part about sovereignty and referendums. Françoise David: We’re sovereignists! We’d have a referendum! François Legault: “People don’t want a referendum!”

Ah. This is unfortunate. We’ve stumbled into a debate over the future of Quebec between two people who won’t be premier. “The next generation can ask the question,” Legault says. “I’m nationalist,” he says. It’s a perfect word in Quebec politics. It means, roughly: “I’m waving my hands in front of your face and you can decide it means whatever you want it to.”

But when the debate turns to Couillard vs. Marois, she comes a little closer to ruling out a referendum. “Do you think we’re going to have a referendum?” she says derisively. There’s cross-talk, because he’s making a great show of being dismissive of her attempts to clarify her line, but the plain-French meaning of her words is that a PQ government will not hold a referendum. Of course there’s uncertainty there. But in the balancing act between Quebecers, who generally don’t want to talk about secession, and the party base, which always does, she shifts the fulcrum because circumstances have changed. Most Péquistes understand that their party’s raison d’être as become a problem. So they’ll tolerate Marois backing away from it.

9:30 p.m.

My Twitter feed is full of colleagues who are impressed by Legault, and it’s true that he’s putting every person he faces on the back foot. He’s practically poking them in the chest like a drunk at Cage aux Sports. And if that’s what Quebecers want in a premier, he’ll walk away with this debate. And if not, not.

9:38 p.m.

The debate now is on the Charter of Values, perhaps surprisingly not an object of much debate in this campaign. The PQ introduced it, Couillard doesn’t like it much, and the other smaller parties are somewhere in between. I don’t know about most Quebecers, but I’m heartily sick of the whole debate. Tonight its dynamic is simple: Couillard is on the defensive, as the others, to some extent, want to outlaw prominent religious wear in the public service. Of course some of the exchanges are absurd. Legault asks Couillard what he’d do about a cop in a hijab. Strangely, when Couillard points out, accurately, that there’s no such thing in Quebec, he comes off seeming defensive.

9:45 p.m.

I admit I’d like to see dial groups respond to much of this debate. When David says there’s too much bilingualism in the workplace in Montreal, and Couillard says bilingualism isn’t a problem, it’s “an extraordinary benefit for a company,” I sure would like to see how ordinary voters respond to that. David responds by widening her eyes and recoiling. There is more of a libertarian streak in Couillard (these things are relative, sure, but still) than in any recent Quebec Liberal leader I can recall. It helps explain why Legault is sounding so nationalistic tonight; there is not a lot of room to Couillard’s right, especially his social-libertarian right.

… And while I was watching that, everyone else kind of freaked out at Couillard saying there isn’t a crisis of English saturation in Quebec. We’ll see whether this was a turning point in the debate.

And then comes another potential turning point: Couillard accuses Marois of “making up a problem” by introducing the Charter. The only result, he said, is “women are facing aggression” because of the tensions the Charter stirs up. And again, the other three leaders turn on Couillard and say, essentially, What is wrong with you?

So on language and what is euphemistically called “identity,” Couillard is isolated. That’s often a decent place to be: the parties that disagree with you split their half of the vote among them. But I suspect he’ll need to be tough to keep his position in the face of withering home-stretch criticism from all the other parties, the PQ first among them.

This election is turning into a clear choice on divisive issues.

Final verdict: Marois had a better night than a week ago. Couillard is more exposed to harsh criticism than ever. If he wins, he’ll have earned it. I suppose that’s true for anyone in any campaign. Boy, these debates wear me out. Over to you, voters of Quebec and spectators coast-to-coast.



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