Anyone who’s eaten at Le Parlementaire, the lovely restaurant inside Quebec’s National Assembly building, knows the rules there are so contrived that diners manage to add a lot more to their waistlines than they
are asked to remove from their wallets. True, your appetite may be disturbed by close proximity with lunching politicians and journalists. But hardy diners normally find it’s a bargain. So the surprise, when Quebec’s three main party leaders gathered in the same restaurant on Tuesday night for the only debate of a crucial provincial election, was how little nourishment, intellectual or otherwise, was on offer.
This election—the vote will take place on March 26—has turned into a barnburner. Jean Charest, deeply unpopular for most of his four years as premier, had finally gathered enough public-opinion momentum to risk calling an election. But the polls suggest his risk may not pay off: his provincial Liberals are in third place among francophones, almost the only voters in two-thirds of Quebec’s ridings, and dissatisfaction with Charest’s government has risen over the course of the campaign. André Boisclair, such a dashing young fellow when he became Parti Québécois leader barely a year ago, now comes across as an amateur completely overtaken by events. His sexuality (gay) and his recreational history (cocaine) have barely been issues in this campaign, because his political stature (flyweight) is all the trouble he needs. The PQ may finish with its worst result in 37 years.
Mario Dumont, 36, has been campaigning for premier for more than one-third of his life. He is closer to the job than ever—still in third place, but the only man with the momentum that eludes Charest and Boisclair. Inevitably, he is finally drawing scrutiny for his team of candidates. Two have had to quit for loutish public statements. He’s a little worried these days.
So at times on Tuesday it was looking pretty Glengarry Glen Ross up there at the makeshift podiums of Le Parlementaire. It’s at least conceivable that any of these men could be Quebec’s next premier, but each was visibly aware that failure could end his career. Boisclair in particular was so busy trying to deliver knockout blows of the Why-Can’t-You-AnswerMy-Contrived-Question variety that he practically had steam coming out his ears. Charest finally had enough of Boisclair’s constant interruptions. “Let people finish talking,” he said. “What’s your problem?”
Dumont had already blown an early lead when the debate took in and he
spent that night in a vile mood. This year his timing is better and he was in a gentler mood. He is obsessed with families, generally a good thing to be obsessed with when you are seeking public office. He offers big cheques to families that raise their children at home, and he wants to abolish school boards and send the money he saves straight to schools. The others hammered at his notready-for-prime-time candidates and his refusal to attach dollar figures to his plans. Call it a wash for him.
Charest is an odd bird. He has spent the campaign scowling and howling, accusing the others of irresponsibility, auditioning for the opposition leader’s job. Suddenly a premier showed up for the debate. Charest defended his modest record, chatted about his modest plans, chuckled at the others’ fretting, slouched cheerfully. With the sound off he was the only guy who looked like a leader instead of a Moore’s suit model.
I’m struck by what wasn’t discussed, or just barely. The endless sovereignty debate, which rules one or the other of the parties out of the question for most Quebec voters, was absent until the last 20 minutes. And about Stephen Harper, barely a peep. That’s not the same as saying nobody mentioned Ottawa. But here’s what stood out: when Boisclair and Dumont wanted to spread horror stories about a vicious federal government, they dredged up Jean Chretien’s name—and Stéphane Dion’s. Boisclair did it on federalism, Dumont on the enforcement of the Canada Health Act. When Harper was finally mentioned, near the end, it was in glowing terms. Charest bragged that Quebec finally has a place at UNESCO meetings (Quebec polit-
icians being the only people in history who were desperate to get into UNESCO meetings). “It’s not you who did that,” Dumont protested, “it’s Stephen Harper.”
It is the most extraordinary thing. There’s a federal budget coming on Monday whose aim is to fix the “fiscal imbalance,” an imaginary malady of interest to very few Canadians outside Quebec. It will be delivered by the government of an Alberta Conservative who fields only a corporal’s guard of MPs in Quebec and whose former seatmate, Belinda Stronach, left the party claiming he would wreck the country. Yet at a debate in which two of the candidates are in the business of telling scary tales about Ottawa, none even tries to make him a bogeyman. No wonder Charest looked relaxed despite his precarious situation. It’s all about who’s got your back. M
ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells
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