Final Quebec election debate proves testiest, as party leaders look for opponents’ weaknesses

Immigration and identity politics once again were at the forefront as the leaders of the main parties faced off for the third time Thursday night — a debate that got sidetracked time and again, notably when the PQ’s Jean-François Lisée demanded to know just who is Québec Solidaire’s leader.

The final debate, carried on the French-language TVA network, proved to be the testiest yet, as the four leaders debated each other on a variety of topics, one on one, looking for their opponents’ weaknesses.

Hijab-wearing cadet ‘has rights just like you’

Though never mentioned specifically, one of the only police cadets in Quebec to wear a hijab found herself the focus of debate, when Coalition Avenir Québec’s François Legault, attacked the incumbent, Philippe Couillard, for allowing police officers to work while wearing a Muslim scarf.

“Why do you want to remove the rights of a Quebec woman?” the Liberal leader retorted. “You’re talking about her like she’s not a person.”

“She’s a person. She’s a Quebecer, and she has rights just like you.”

Legault said polls show the majority of Quebecers believe police should not be allowed to wear religious symbols.

“In a democratic society, we don’t take away a minority’s rights because of polls,” said Couillard. “We don’t govern by polls on the question of rights.”

He asked Legault how many police officers in Quebec now wear a hijab, saying there is no existing crisis of police officers wearing religious symbols.

“A premier is there to be proactive,” replied Legault.

QS’s Massé asked to explain her role

The format of this debate gave the co-spokesperson of Québec Solidaire, Manon Massé, ample opportunity to make her points, and the fact that her party is creeping up in the polls has clearly not been lost on the PQ leader.

Asked to debate Massé on the shortage of family doctors, Lisée quickly dispensed with the topic at hand to demand Massé explain her role.

“I’m being asked not to ask questions that are too hard of Manon Massé,” Lisée said. “But I have a supplementary question to ask: This is a leaders debate.… If you aren’t the leader of Québec Solidaire, then who is and why isn’t he here at the leaders debate?”

“We’ve learned to share power,” Massé told him.”It’s a necessary democratic practice, when you want to change the world.” 

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée questioned the structure of rival party Québec Solidaire at the final leaders’ debate. (Radio-Canada)

Lisée’s refusal to return to the health care topic was a strange moment, provoking a barrage of questions from journalists after the debate ended.

“Québec Solidaire is now an important player in this campaign, and the co-spokespeople, Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois are terrific. But they’re spokespeople. Who is the boss of these spokespeople? Who are they speaking for?” he explained in the post-debate scrum.

He repeated his assertion that there is an unnamed leader in the background, pulling the co-spokespeople’s strings.

When Massé was asked what she thought about that, she burst out laughing.

“You guys know there’s no leader of Québec Solidaire,” she said to journalists. “We’re two co-spokespeople, a man and a woman. You know why? To always make sure there’s one man and one woman who are the spokespeople of this party.”

French tests for immigrants

Legault found himself once again on the defensive for his controversial promise to make immigrants pass a French test if they want to stay in Quebec.

The CAQ leader was asked by TVA host Pierre Bruneau whether Quebecers could trust him on such an important subject as immigration, after he responded incorrectly to questions on how the immigration system works earlier this week.

“Our position is simple,” said Legault, reiterating his vow that immigrants who fail to pass a French test and a test on Quebec values would not be allowed to stay in the province.

“It’s not a question of expulsion,” he said. “It’s that we won’t accept them.”

“The only thing we’re expelling is the Liberal party.”

Manon Massé, right, co-spokesperson for Québec Solidaire, told CAQ Leader François Legault she doesn’t believe he has anything against immigrants — that he’s only going after them because his strategists have told him it’s a way to win votes. (TVA)

Legault’s been accused time and again by both the Liberal and Parti Québécois leaders of frightening newcomers.

In her one-on-one with him, Québec Solidaire’s Massé tried a different tack.

“I believe you when you say you’ve got nothing against immigrants,” Massé told Legault.

“I wonder if your political strategists aren’t telling you to push this issue — to win votes.”

‘Saviour of health care?’

The debate opened with one-on-one sparring on health care, with Legault asking Couillard if he thought health care had improved in any way in the 15 years since former Liberal premier Jean Charest introduced the retired neurosurgeon to Quebecers as “the saviour of health care.”  

Legault reminded Couillard he’d talked back then about changing the way doctors were paid to provide incentives to work closely with nurses and nurse practitioners.

“You were health minister for five years, premier for four years, you haven’t changed it,” he said.

“Actually, it’s already happening,” Couillard replied, pointing to the Jewish General Hospital’s mixed-remuneration system by way of example.

Several times, Couillard was forced to defend cuts his government made to public spending in his first two years in office, particularly in health and education.

“I think Mr. Couillard, you don’t have any credibility today to say you’re going to repair what you broke,” the PQ’s Lisée told the Liberal leader.

“What breaks our public services are deficits. [Your party] gave them to us,” Couillard replied. “We took care of them. We fixed the problem.” 

Philippe Couillard speaks to reporters after the third leaders’ debate. (Radio-Canada)

How much do groceries cost?

Inevitably, Couillard’s comment in a radio interview Thursday that a family of three could live for a week on $75 worth of groceries came up in the evening’s debate.

Critics have said Couillard’s comment is out of touch.

“Here in Montreal this week, there are people who do their groceries with that budget,” responded Couillard. “You need to know that, otherwise you’re not sensitive to them.

On that point, Massé agreed, reminding voters of her party’s plan to raise the minimum hourly wage to $15.

Couillard said his party’s poverty plan will help lift people out of poverty.

“I don’t think Mr. Legault has a [poverty plan],” he said.

Better to be feared than loved?

On the subject of provincial-federal relations, Lisée invoked the same Machiavellian screed as in the first French debate — that Quebec gets a better deal when a pro-sovereignty party is in power because it makes federalist politicians afraid.

“Ottawa doesn’t care when there are federalists in power. They don’t like Quebec; they don’t respect it, but when sovereignists are in power, they’re afraid of us.”

Legault, whose party supports federalism, fired back.

“What credibility do you have when you talk to Ottawa when you don’t want federalism to work?” he said.

If elected, Lisée’s party would not propose a referendum until its second term.

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