Quebec party leaders faced off for the second and last time in a French-language debate Thursday night, with François Legault on the defensive against his opponents ahead of the Oct. 3 election.
The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), led by Legault, still has a solid lead in the polls as voting day looms. The other four main parties are vying for second place as the Official Opposition in the provincial legislature.
Legault immediately went after Québec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois over the topic of environment, accusing him of living in “Wonderland” for promising to include surcharges for certain vehicles like SUVs.
The 32-year-old snapped back, telling Legault to remove the Halloween decorations and to instead propose solutions.
“You need to stop scaring Quebecers,” Nadeau-Dubois said.
Legault’s attack comes as the left-leaning, sovereigntist party, which puts forth bold promises to fight climate change, is looking to replace the Liberals as the Official Opposition.
Earlier this week, a new poll put Québec solidaire at a tie with the Quebec Liberal Party and the Conservative Party of Quebec for second place among voters at 16 per cent. The support for Legault’s CAQ has not waned much since the beginning of the campaign — but Québec solidaire is the top pick for voters between the age of 18 and 34.
Legault, meanwhile, was also on the defensive from all the other leaders for his party’s promised “third link” tunnel crossing the St-Lawrence River from Quebec City to its south shore of Lévis. He has come under fire for a lack of transparency over any kind of study into the project.
Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, leader of the Parti Québécois, went so far as to accuse the incumbent CAQ of putting forth a roadway that’s “not in the public interest.”
The debate, hosted by Radio-Canada, offered another chance for the Liberal, Québec solidaire, Conservative and Parti Québécois leaders to make their pitch. It was divided into five sections: the environment; the cost of living and the economy; health care; education and public services; and the French language, immigration and identity.
When it came to the economy and cost-of-living concerns, Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said her plan to offer tax cuts to Quebecers wouldn’t fuel inflation because the extra money would help people satisfy their basic needs.
At the outset of the campaign, the CAQ also offered to trim income taxes — while the Conservatives have pledged even deeper tax cuts and even than either of those two parties. Meanwhile, both Québec solidaire and the Parti Québécois have said they don’t plan to cut taxes.
“It’s a one-way trip toward austerity, and it’s a present for the richest,” said St-Pierre Plamondon, whose party is promising refundable tax credits.
Legault also went after Nadeau-Dubois again, bringing up comments the Québec solidaire leader made about “decreasing the growth” of certain sectors of the economy.
“Which sectors are you talking about?” Legault asked.
Nadeau-Dubois didn’t directly address the question but talked about how demand will soon decrease for fossil fuels, which he said would affect companies such as oil refineries.
Legault cut him off, “and what about the manufacturing industry?” He suggested Québec solidaire’s ideas would negatively impact the economy. Nadeau-Dubois once again accused Legault of using fear to make his arguments.
Clash over COVID-19 measures
When the debate turned to the topic of health, the incumbent premier went after the leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec over criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leaders were weighing in on mental health and that is when Legault and Éric Duhaime went head to head.
Legault claimed Duhaime — whose party has gained traction with Quebecers over its strong opposition to COVID-19 public health measures — has been irresponsible and has “played the role of agitator.” He also claimed that Duhaime benefitted from the suffering of Quebecers during a health crisis.
Duhaime shot back and accused Legault of being unable to admit that Quebec has a mental health problem related to the strict COVID-19 rules, which included a five-month curfew.
Legault cut him off.
“How many were you ready to sacrifice? Were you ready to sacrifice twice as many seniors, three times as many seniors?” Legault said, referring to imposing fewer rules.
Duhaime replied, “You were irresponsible with the children of Quebec, Mr. Legault, never forget that.”
Fiery exchanges over language, sovereignty
The leaders of Quebec’s five major parties also took aim at one another over the topics of sovereignty, protecting the French language and the religious neutrality law known as Bill 21.
Legault, a former PQ minister, said while he understands the concept of sovereignty, Quebecers have priorities other than “having a referendum” right now.
“It would divide Quebecers,” Legault said.
Anglade said her party is federalist and she would vote no to separation. If the Liberals formed the next government, she would work with Ottawa. Duhaime, meanwhile, said he was proud that this election could turn the page of “60 years of fighting” in the province.
St-Pierre Plamondon claimed Legault was a federalist and claimed the CAQ is the “most against” Quebec sovereignty.
“Your project is to extinguish the independence of Quebec,” he said.
The leader of the Quebec Liberal Party also criticized Legault for both Bill 21 and Bill 96, his government’s contentious language-law reform. She said the best way to protect French is not by “removing rights,” but by promoting and encouraging people to learn the language.
“The reality is he divided Quebecers on these two issues,” Anglade said.
— with files from Global News’ Gloria Henriquez and The Canadian Press