Passionate But Civil – Highlights of the Four Leaders of the March 20th Debate

Passionate But Civil – Highlights of the Four Leaders of the March 20th Debate

Conventional wisdom has it that there are three critical moments in an election: the beginning, the end, and the leadership debate somewhere in the middle.  To the politically-oriented, the debates are often the most important of the three, while political junkies like to throw combative terminology around, comparing these debates – the cornerstone of peaceful society – to a prize fight… or worse.  Now that we’ve all had time to digest the debates, the highlights come out clearly.

Passionate, but cordial

As I’m not one for that kind of competitive, us-versus-them approach to our democracy, I was quite pleased with last night’s debates.  All four leaders, guided by the expert hand of veteran news anchor Anne-Marie Dussault, kept the debates centered on the issues at hand and free of vitriol and personal attacks.  While there were a few moments where passions flew fast and loose, the overall tone remained professional.  Debate junkies will lament the lack of any so-called “knock-out punches”, but for undecided voters, two hours of all leaders steady on their feet can only help in making our decisions.

Françoise David: The Serene Stallion

Still glowing from her remarkable performance at the 2012 debates, Françoise David once again stuck out as the only one truly “above the fray”, using the debates to push forward her party’s platform.  While some pundits will argue that, since Québec Solidaire is not really a contender, she’s got the easy role of the wild-card with nothing to lose… but that simply isn’t true anymore.  With QS having just polled into double-digits, they’re trailing the CAQ by a mere three percentage points.  QS is not the fringe, sideline party it once was, but a real, serious contender, bolstered by its leader’s skill and comfort in tackling economic policy, something wholly unexpected from the socialist party.

Mme David also impressed again with her willingness to express support of other leaders’ ideas as well as her using the debate to put forward the more novel ideas of her party, like nationalizing pharmaceuticals and the wind energy business.  A strong moment also came from her willingness to call out the Marois government on their about-face with the Maple Spring protests, which she claimed had “sapped the confidence” of Québécois in her intentions.  Every other leader seemed to want to sweep the Maple Spring under the rug.

I predict Françoise David will lead QS to finish this election with polling numbers in third place… though it remains to be seen if, in our first-past-the-post electoral system, that will translate into more seats in the National Assembly.

François Legault: Cuts and Cold Hard Cash

Promising more money in your pockets is rarely a losing proposition, and François Legault seems to be banking on it.  With his party barely clinging on to double-digit polls and his support eroding daily, M. Legault needed a solid performance and stressed on his on leadership skills to save the barn.  The number of times he stressed lowering taxes on families, his continued references to voters as “taxpayers”, and his repeated insistence on his past founding and management of Air Transat made his message clear – Legault is courting the business-savvy right.  To his credit, he also continues to try to shift the debate away from the referendum Oui or Non that has been the focal point of Québec politics for the last four decades, but this only makes the CAQ vulnerable to erosion into PLQ and PQ voters for whom this really is the only question that matters this election.

You could also immediately tell his preparation was much less formal than the other leaders – while the other three mostly seemed to be sticking to scripts, M. Legault seemed to be relying on a smattering of bullet points and his ability to think on his feet.  This may or may not help him – while some folks will have appreciated his frank style, others may be turned off by his less polished, more populist delivery.  A particular gem which will no doubt haunt his prep team came when discussing Hydro-Québec subsidies to industries of the Gaspésie region.  Questioned on his party’s plan to cut these subsidies, M. Legault off-handedly remarked, “j’aime bien les gaspésiens, mais j’aime pas le gaspillage.” (“I like the Gaspésiens, but I don’t like wasted spending.”)  Such a phrase must have come out in the heat of the moment, but I doubt the Gaspésiens will appreciate having their livelihoods so backhandedly dismissed.

In all, it’s uncertain if M. Legault managed to stop the polling bleed his party.  His promise of $1,000 extra per family might simply not be enough to secure their votes in the current political climate.

Philippe Couillard: Stability and Status Quo

It almost goes without saying that an internationally-experienced neurosurgeon would have the nerves of steel and intellectual bent that characterize Philippe Couillard.  His cool, dispassionate demeanor seems like it would have been well-suited to the times of the Roman patricians, but he and his advisers know it’s not as palatable to today’s popular democracy.  You can almost feel how uncomfortable he is talking in terms of des jobs qui paient bien and les vraies affaires rather than des emplois bien rémunérés and les questions d’importance – playing the part of the people’s man will likely never be his forte.

He doesn’t hide his intentions to make as few changes to the fabric of Québec society as possible, openly embracing the status quo of past Liberal governments – minus their past corruption scandals, which mostly went unaddressed by his opponents.  It’s especially ironic to have him paint himself as the protector of fundamental civil liberties against the PQ’s proposed charter, as less than two years ago most members of his team voted in favour of laws which restricted freedom of expression and freedom of assembly to try and curb the Maple Spring.

Still, his intellectual side does give him the distinct advantage of being unshakably cool-headed.  He seemed unfazed by the emotional bursts levied and went as far as to calmly interrupt and correct the moderator, academically deconstructing a factual error Mme Dussault had made in the preamble to a question on ethics and governance (which concerned his shaky leave from politics to private business a few years ago).  A more passionate mind like Mme Marois or M. Legault would have made such an intervention seem defensive, but M. Couillard pulled it off almost professorially.

If M. Couillard’s more calm, passive stance kept him from being exposed to losses, he made no gains either.  With his party currently polling to a majority government, that’s all he needed to do anyway.

Pauline Marois: La Dame de Béton is Not About to Crack

This election was her idea, its issues her making, and its outcome entirely hers to lose.  Pauline Marois has shown time and again that she’ll break before she bends… and that she simply does not break.  This debate was her chance to push the election back onto the issues of her electoral strategy – the Charter of Values and government ethics – and away from the limping economy and Pierre Karl Péladeau’s accidental referendum tailspin, and on this, she was only partially successful.  PKP was an unavoidable topic, as all three other leaders expressed their concern that a likely cabinet minister under a PQ government who owned such a significant interest in Québec’s media would invariably lead to conflicts of interest, even if PKP had no de jure control over his property.

Seeing the PQ skirt attention away from separatism is almost as ironic as the PLQ positioning itself as staunch defender of civil liberties, as Mme Marois was repeatedly questioned by both M. Legault and M. Couillard about her intentions towards a referendum.  She hotly claimed that her position was clear and that she wanted to reassure the Québécois on the issue, then sadly defaulted to a position that was anything but: “Il n’y aura pas de référendum tant que les québécois ne seront pas prêts.” (“There will be no referendum as long as the Québécois are not ready.”)

You’ll note, of course, that this answer is carefully crafted to be deceptively ambiguous.  Those who do not want a referendum – like roughly two-thirds of Québécois – are only supposed to hear the first part and assume there will be no referendum, period.  Those who do want a referendum – like the majority of the Mme Marois’ supporters which the PQ risks losing to QS – are only supposed to hear the second part and assume that there will be a referendum after the PQ has prepared the people of Québec for one.  It’s political doublespeak at its finest, and frankly, it’s crass to assume it’ll work – at best, it will only bolster further support to QS, which has a very clear stance that they will hold a popular consultation within their first mandate.  The PQ could have answered more clearly that they will work towards Québec nationhood, but won’t look at a referendum until their Livre Blanc consultation on an eventual Québec Republic is complete and has popular support.

Mme Marois made significantly more headway when the debate came back to the Charter of Values, though.  As soon as her chance to question M. Couillard on the issue came up, you could tell she’d been waiting for this all night.  Her opening line of questioning, aiming at M. Couillard’s uncertain handling of the debate within his own party, was delivered with such force I’m amazed her podium withstood her zeal.  There’s no doubt she was well-prepared – when M. Couillard went for an emotional appeal by asking her how many Muslim nurses she expected would lose their jobs as a result of the Charter, Mme Marois deftly answered that, so far, the only woman to lose her job as a result of the Charter was former PLQ MP Fatima Houda-Pépin, pushed out of M. Couillard’s caucus for her position in favour of the Charter’s controversial proposed ban on religious headgear in the civil service.  M. Couillard was characteristically unruffled, but had no answer (though, surprisingly, he didn’t point out that federal MP Maria Mourani was similarly ousted from the Bloc Québécois caucus weeks before Mme Houda-Pépin for opposing the charter).

Did Mme Marois manage to bring back the debate to her favoured issues?  It’s doubtful, and ultimately, she might have bitten off more than she could chew.

What’s next?

The jockeying will continue, but I predict the big winner in terms of polling numbers will be Québec Solidaire, likely at the expense of PQ and PLQ support, while CAQ support will continue to dwindle and refill the PLQ’s losses to QS.  The PQ’s ambiguous gambit regarding the referendum is a risky proposition that could very well pay off if the PQ campaign clarifies its intentions, but it’s clear at this point that the three other major parties have an answer to the Charter of Values and the PQ needs to look elsewhere to get back into this election.

The next leadership debates will be on March 27th.  Watch last night’s debate here.

Categories: Opinion

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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