The interests of journalists and voters are in fundamental conflict after a televised leaders’ debate, such as the one tonight that kicked off an unprecedented four consecutive nights of confrontations among the party leaders in Quebec. (Monday through Wednesday will feature one-on-one confrontations between pairs of party leaders. Tonight it was a more traditional debate among four leaders.) My lot are always looking for a telling moment, a single line or exchange that captures the novelty, if there was any, in the two-hour exchange. Twenty-eight years after Mulroney-Turner ’84, we’ve almostlearned to stop saying “knockout punch,” but the impulse to find such a thing is still strong.
Voters, on the other hand, are more like motorists road-testing a new car. They’re looking for general impressions, and it isn’t novelty that impresses so much as comfort and confidence. Voters chuckle at a clever line. But they’re looking for a long-term commitment.
Jean Charest’s problem is that they’ve already had one with him. This is his sixth election year as a debating leader: he sweated under the cameras in 1997 as a federal leader and in 1998, 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2012 as the leader of the Quebec Liberals. He cannot credibly promise much that would be new. When he tries to reassure about what he’s done, Quebecers compare it against their sense of his record, which they already overwhelmingly reject. And when he tries to blame today’s problems on the PQ government of 1994-2003 it’s a little sad. His seen-it-all-before smile was the most remarked-upon bit of body language tonight, and it didn’t help him. And when he refused yet again to criticize Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay for some xenophobic comments about a PQ candidate of Algerian descent (Tremblay called Djemila Benhabib one of “these people” and added, “We can’t even pronounce her name”), he cemented the impression he is so thoroughly on the defensive he has forgotten how to lead, or when he should.
Charest’s only hope, now fading, is that voters looking for change will be so divided among potential replacements that he can come up the middle for yet another re-election. The main replacements on offer are the Parti Québécois’s Pauline Marois and François Legault of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec. The two staked out starkly different territory tonight. Marois, who’s been depicted by Charest as a flake, tried to appear reassuring, competent and moderate. Legault, a doughy middle-aged fellow who founded Air Transat in the mid-’80s and was recruited into Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government more than a decade ago, pretended he sprang naked from an egg yesterday and that he’s amazed to discover what’s been going on in Quebec while he was vacationing in another dimension.
Voters who believe Charest’s problem is technical incompetence (and who don’t pay much attention to the parties’ views on the sovereignty question) would be comforted by Marois’s cool, detail-free, I’m-just-sitting-on-my-polling-lead demeanour. But I don’t believe there are many such voters. I think there are many more who think Quebec is stuck in a very deep rut. And it’s not a Liberal rut or a federalist rut, it’s a protection racket. Hence Legault, who kept calling himself a man with “clean hands” and “free hands” who “doesn’t owe anything to anyone.”
One of the most telling exchanges came when Legault was pushing his radical overhauls to education and health care. (He wants to eliminate school boards and ensure that every Quebecer who wants one has access to a family physician.) Marois shook her head disdainfully. “Changing structures doesn’t generate jobs,” she said. “It creates quarrels, usually.”
Legault shot back: “You have your hands tied by the unions! You won’t cut costs.”
Legault’s man-on-a-horse routine left him vulnerable to an obvious and accurate response from the others: he was not, in fact, born yesterday. He said a lot of things about how Canada is unfixable back when he was a PQ cabinet minister, and he shares responsibility for the less-than-stellar health-care and education outcomes from those days too. He clearly hated to be reminded of all that, and spent much of the debate trying to reassure voters that while he was a senior cabinet minister in the government of Quebec, he was not actually present when any decisions were made. He has taken to heart Sam Rosenman’s advice to Franklin Roosevelt when Roosevelt was hounded by the memory of an embarrassing speech during his re-election campaign: “Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh.”
As for Marois, her biggest problem is that she needs a motivated sovereignist and social-democrat base to get out and vote PQ at the same time as she needs to calm voters who are not particularly much of either and worry that she is too much of both. She was hounded inconveniently all night by a more persuasive sovereignist and social-democrat leader. Sorry, “spokesperson.” That’s Françoise David, the don’t-call-her-leader of the Quebec Solidaire fringe party. David played a key bit part in the 1995 referendum, as leader of an important group that advocated for women’s rights, so her pedigree on these issues is at least as strong as Marois’s, and in this debate she was calm and assured where every other leader was rushed and hectic. She kept things unsettled on Marois’s radical flank, even as the PQ leader was trying to reassure swing voters that she has no radical flank. The red-square lapel pin on the Québec Solidaire spokesperson’s lapel was two kinds of trouble for Marois: it reminded the PQ base that Marois has stopped wearing hers, and it reminded everyone else that she wore one for three months.
So I think Marois had a difficult night. I expect her lack of specific proposals and the constant flak from David took a little off her momentum. Legault was no star (his French grammar, incidentally, is atrocious), but what he is offering seems to me to be closer to what Quebec voters want this year. Too much still lies ahead for me to be making any predictions tonight. Monday, Marois will debate Charest one-on-one. Tuesday it’s Charest and Legault. Suddenly
Tuesday’s oops, that’s Wednesday’s debate, in which only Legault and Marois will participate, seems crucial.