Quebec political leaders clash over economy
Published Tuesday, November 25, 2008 11:28PM EST
QUEBEC - Premier Jean Charest's opponents tried dragging down his high-flying campaign in their leaders' debate Tuesday, casting him as being dishonest with Quebecers over the state of the economy.
The Liberal premier faced a tag team of Pequiste and Action democratique du Quebec leaders who hurled repeated accusations that he has been lying to voters.
They said Charest has misled voters over the state of the province's finances, over losses in the provincial pension fund, over health-care wait times and even over why he called the election.
The debate concluded without the kind of defining moment that can trigger a drastic shift in a campaign, as happened in the federal debates of 1984 and 1988 and in the Quebec one of 2003.
It was also almost entirely devoid of discussion about sovereignty, as leaders sparred over how best to defend Quebec's interests within Canada instead of whether it should be a country.
The premier has said all along that the Dec. 8 vote is about the economy and about providing Quebecers with a stable majority government in such uncertain times.
"You can't have three hands on the wheel," Charest said of his current minority government.
"We want a government of stability as of Dec. 8."
That has been the Liberal leader's mantra since he called the election on Nov. 5 in an attempt to push his Liberals into majority territory after 20 months of minority rule.
Charest's gambit so far appears to be paying off, with a pair of opinion polls Tuesday suggesting the Liberals held a lead of about a dozen percentage points over the PQ, with the ADQ languishing much further back.
Such a giant margin of victory would almost certainly have guaranteed a majority government.
That yawning gap prompted both of Charest's rivals to focus nearly all their energy attacking him, instead of each other.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois and ADQ Leader Mario Dumont both tore into Charest's handling of the provincial pension fund. Charest has said he is unable to render public the exact losses incurred by the arm's-length Caisse de depot et placement.
The giant Caisse, which has assets of around $150 billion, has refused to publish interim figures before the end of its fiscal year.
"Mr. Charest has a new slogan -- Elections Now, the Truth Later," said Marois, who was making her first appearance in such a debate.
Dumont, his party virtually off the map at 12 per cent support in Tuesday's opinion polls, came out swinging, hoping to counter the image of his party as amateurish.
He referred to the steep, gaffe-filled learning curve faced by his dozens of rookie parliamentarians in the last session and cast it as simple growing pains.
"With a year and a half of experience, our team is readier than ever to work for you," Dumont said, a reference to the time his party has served as the official Opposition in the legislature since the March 2007 election.
Charest and Marois began the debate with a heated exchange over the province's health-care system, a topic some polls have suggested ranks atop Quebecers' list of priorities.
The Liberal leader accused his PQ rival of slashing the number of doctors and nurses in the province when she was Quebec's health minister in the late 1990s and then-premier Lucien Bouchard was on a deficit-busting drive.
Marois responded that the tough decisions made by the PQ saved the health system, and she accused the Liberals of creating a "fiasco" by failing to improve the system since coming to power in 2003.
The debate eventually turned to Quebec's political future, with each of the three leaders staking out different territory.
Charest boasted that his government has reached agreements with the federal government in various areas, including health and giving Quebec an increased role within UNESCO.
Dumont reiterated his call for talks to reopen the Constitution, while Marois, with an eye on placating PQ hardliners, made a few cursory references to the need for Quebec sovereignty.
But compared with past debates, the sovereignty issue lacked fervour and any sense of immediacy and was not even mentioned until about 80 minutes in.
The recent polls add lustre to what has been a major turnaround for Charest, whose tenure as Liberal leader was being questioned after the 2007 election.
The Liberals suffered a major setback in that vote and barely held onto power when voters knocked them back to minority status.
Party members grumbled privately that maybe Charest should be turfed.
But Charest has reinvigorated his party over the last 12 months and watched his own popularity soar.
He's been running an almost error-free campaign that paints the Liberals as the best managers of the economy.
Charest has also been trying to win over voters by boosting Quebec's cultural industries with promises to abolish the provincial sales tax on culture-related products, such as CDs and theatre tickets.
He has said it became clear how Quebecers feel about culture during the federal election campaign, when demonstrators vehemently protested Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cuts to arts funding.
The recent polls also suggested that the ADQ continued to slide away from its official Opposition status and back into the political fringe.
Last week, Marois hit on hot-button issues of language and identity to kick-start what has been a flat campaign for the PQ.
Marois has promised a beefed-up language law -- she described as the new Bill 101.
She has also pledged to pull Quebec out of federal cultural agencies, like the National Film Board and the CRTC, and would demand $300 million from Ottawa so Quebec could handle its own cultural programs.