In an interview on Saturday, Jean Charest likened the debates to a zero-sum game. “We’re experienced politicians, knock-outs are rare,” he told La Presse’s Denis Lessard. It was a way, perhaps, of cooling expectations on the part of restive Liberals across the province—the same ones who, for nearly a decade, have watched their leader falter only to punch his way back thanks to his debating chops and eye for the jugular. It’s not to say he won’t do as much—he said in the same interview that he’s scheduled a ministers’ meeting for the day after the election—but that it won’t be a plodding two-hour display of cross-talk and dueling talking points that a very unpopular premier will win himself back into voters’ good graces.
In fact, Charest was being a bit modest. Having to defend a nine-year mandate, the latter three of which have been under a perpetual cloud, against two people (Pauline Marois and François Legault) who have at least the same chance of forming the next government as he, was less zero-sum than potential disaster. And while his prophecy came true Sunday night during the Radio-Canada/Télé-Québec debate—there really wasn’t a knock-out—if there has to be winners (though not necessarily losers) in these things, then I’d say Charest came out best. Here’s why:
1. He dominated camera time. This is no surprise, given he’s the target, but most of his time on camera was spent on the offensive. When he spoke of his record, it was not from a defensive position. He bragged about job numbers (enviable compared to non oil-producing provinces) and about his economic record. He also got off his pre-planned soundbites. To Legault, he said, “You were a sovereignist for 40 years, and you changed your mind for four seconds.” To Marois and Legault: “I find it interesting, seeing two sovereignists fight with each other.”
2. He dodged the corruption file with aplomb. A quarter of the debate was devoted to integrity and corruption, a hot-button issue and an area in which, for obvious reasons, Charest is vulnerable. Yet he dodged the most potentially bruising allegations—specifically, the case of disgraced former cabinet minister Tony Tomassi and illegal campaign financing—and even went on the attack. He employed one talking point to accuse the PQ of corruption, citing the Moisan report into party financing. It was a cheeky attack, if only because the 2006 report singles out Charest’s own former minister, Nathalie Normandeau. Of course, that’s Charest’s charm — he’s a master of half-true soundbites. “We have a tough law against prête-noms,” he said at one point, referring to companies that donate money to political parties through their employees. What he forgot to mention, of course, is that the Liberal Party was caught doing just that.
3. He put Marois and Legault in the same boat Charest is losing, or at least risks losing, Anglo and Allophone voters to Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec. Short of dancing naked in the street with it spray-painted on his chest, Legault has done everything to convince people he wants nothing to do with a referendum. Nevertheless, Charest constantly reminded viewers of Legault’s PQ past, particularly as one of the “impatient” types who once wanted Quebec sovereignty tomorrow morning, if not before. Somehow he’s kept the idea of “Legault-as-a-crypto-sovereignist” alive.
4. He didn’t get mad, he got fierce. He was nervous to start, but quickly fell into familiar Charest mode: the one in which he attacks his opponent as though the latter had just publicly insulted a family member.
As dire as things look for Charest, there remains a large number of undecided voters. With her frequent name-dropping of the cause of sovereignty—but without committing to a referendum—Marois played well to her entrenched base as well as those soft nationalist who like the dream, but couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. Legault didn’t have quite the proselytising effect he needed to pick up péquiste and weary Liberal votes. Françoise David, who used the occasion to commit the red square to lapel jewellery, was a joy to watch, but a reminder of how little effect Quebec Solidaire has outside the Island of Montreal.
Charest wasn’t transformative—he never has been—and he might well take a beating in one or more of the next three debates during the next three nights. The one-on-one format lends more to a knockout, and he’ll have a tougher time skirting questions. But throughout the slog of the four-person debate, Charest did his best to ensure he’s at least worth another look. That in itself is impressive.