Charest-Marois: the cage match

Paul Wells on Monday's debate: 'Etiquette lesson aside, there was some content to this debate, too'

PQ leader Pauline Marois responds to questions following a debate with Quebec Premier Jean Charest on Aug. 20, 2012. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

If you missed Monday night’s one-on-one debate of Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest and Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, here’s a highlight reel:

So yes, elementary decorum was a little lacking. I get called cynical a lot, but I guess sometimes I’m the opposite: I honestly, honestly believe two political leaders who interrupt each other constantly for a solid hour, in a snarling tone and with perfect contempt written on their features, are hurting the case they are trying to make and the public image of public life in general. I was raised to listen in a conversation and wait my turn. I am sure most Quebecers were too. Either of these two would have helped his or her image by leaning back and letting the other bray like a jackass alone. Instead they sang a duet.

OK. Etiquette lesson aside, there was some content to this debate too. What’s striking is the extent to which neither leader is trying to attract voters who reside any distance away from their party’s core vote.

Marois on the tuition strikers: “I have a profound admiration for these young people who got up to defend their point of view.”

Charest on the students who didn’t strike: “I believe if there is a class where 20 students vote to boycott and five don’t, the five have a right to school. That’s fundamental.”

Pick the one you like. My point is that on this and on a half-dozen other issues — taxation, the government’s role in curtailing languages other than French, and more — neither leader sought to reach beyond the base. There is no room in this crowded field for big tents or common ground. In an election where the winner will be lucky to get more than 35% of the popular vote, it’s hold-your-base time.

In fact, here’s a nutty thought. Until shortly before the campaign started, Marois was wearing a square of red fabric in solidarity with the tuition protesters. She stopped after polls showed the protesters commanded very limited support among Quebecers. I wouldn’t be entirely astonished if Marois starts wearing a red lapel square again before voting day, to galvanize her base.

The most bitter part of the debate was the beginning, on the subject of “governance,” or as we say when we’re not being delicate, corruption. Marois needs Quebecers to be so fed up with Charest that they will vote for change without particular regard for a new government’s willingness or motivation to clean things up. Charest needs an electorate that honestly believes there’s nothing so wrong in Quebec that it shouldn’t re-elect the Liberals yet again. Each leader stands firmly in the other’s way. They went at each other hammer and tong.

Two years ago, after this magazine’s Bonhomme-with-a-satchel-of-cash cover, Charest showed up at a lunch of the Banff Forum and railed at Maclean’s, in the apparent belief that we were his biggest problem. He showed up at Monday’s debate comparably wrapped in denial. He accused Marois of levelling “allegations based on nothing” and said his ex-minister Tony Tomassi, who will appear in court on Sept. 4 — election day — to respond to charges of fraud and breach of trust, left government “for personal reasons.” As for his former deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau, who accepted lavish gifts from the picturesque and much-accused construction magnate Lino Zambito, I’m sure that was no more than love of music.

I believe Charest honestly believes he is running a clean government. Against all the evidence. I think he honestly believes people are just making stuff up to torment him. One day, years from now, I hope to check this hunch with Charest, but in the meantime there it is. For now he has managed to share the blame with the PQ, using an old report that showed tainted money financing that party’s operations. So he may not lose ground to the PQ, or at least no more than he has already lost. And maybe François Legault will be silly enough to show up just as belligerent for Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s debates with, respectively, Charest and Marois as they were with each other on Monday. If he did, he would blow the advantage he built up tonight simply by being absent from the scene of his rivals’ assorted crimes against simple human dignity.