Relatively even-toned, debate had surprises and a few fiery moments
Two hours was all the leaders of Quebec’s provincial parties had to sway voters to their particular vision of the province’s future, as the first provincial elections debate was held on March 20.
Broadcast by Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec in French with live English translation and moderated by journalists Anne-Marie Dussault and Sébastien Bovet, Parti Québecois’ (PQ) leader Pauline Marois, Coalition Avenir Québec’s (CAQ) François Legault, Québec Solidaire’s (QS) Françoise David, and Liberal leader Phillipe Couillard did their best to buttress their agendas and undermine the policies and track records of their opponents.
From the get-go, Couillard set up his party as the alternative to the present status quo when he bluntly asked viewers whether they wanted a referendum or a focus on the economy, health services, and education, alluding to the PQ’s stance on sovereignty.
Marois, especially combat- ive during the night, fought back throughout the debate by assailing the failings of the “Liberal years” before her party came to power, and painted the CAQ and QS as being out of touch.
Legault’s consistent stance was for lower taxes, privatization, and more ‘wiggle-room’ for the average Quebecer.
Though a healthy middle class, both economically and socially, was agreed to by all candidates as a criti- cal benchmark for Quebec’s growth, different ideas were touted as the way forward.
David insisted on green development and social care and, while she was perhaps the most composed candidate, she bared her teeth on more than one occasion, as when she pointed out the PQ’s reliance on petroleum was a blatant backtracking on their previous “ecologi- cal commitments.” This in turn allowed Marois to paint David as the leader of an environmental party and against job creation.
Ordinarily humourless, there were moments of levity. Marois claimed that, in addition to creat- ing jobs and restarting the economy, her party had “the best economic team…Quebec has ever seen in all its history,” to which Legault later pointed out that as the sole candidate with any business experience (having been a businessman before entering politics) only he could claim to have directly created jobs.
Sovereignty and the charter, the most headline-grabbing topics of late, were raised last. Here Marois toned down her outspoken views, perhaps as a calculated reaction to its oversaturation in voters’ minds.
However, continually cornered on the issue, Marois was finally forced by Legault, when he point- edly asked, “You have a duty to an- swer clearly: yes or no, will you call a referendum in the next mandate?” to respond with, “No [there will be no referendum]…as long as Quebecers are not ready.”
The second major part of the national identity issue concerned the Charter of Values; a proposal by the PQ that would see ostentatious religious displays by govern- ment employees, such as jewelry or headwear like hijabs and turbans, amongst others, banned. The PQ leader called it a guarantee of state secularism and human rights and a simultaneous preservation of religious equality, while her opponents called it needlessly discriminatory and an attempt at wedge politicking.
Overall, while the traditional crossfire between the heavyweights in the province — the Liberals and the PQ — took center stage, there was plenty of room for the newer parties (with less to lose, compara- tively) to score major points with blunt stances.
The debate marked the half- way point of the elections that end with a vote on April 7, 2014. The next and final debate is set for Thursday, March 27.