Montreal·Analysis

Liberals off to shaky start in Quebec election campaign

Quebec Liberals saw in a longer election campaign their chance to turn polls around. Instead, with the official campaign start on Thursday, Couillard is off balance after unceremoniously dumping a popular Liberal veteran in favour of former hockey player with no political experience.

Couillard steps on avoidable banana peel, dumping Liberal veteran for an ex-NHLer

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, shakes hands with Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault as Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée, centre, looks on at the National Assembly. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

This coming Thursday marks the official start of a Quebec election campaign that could herald major changes.

The once contentious sovereignty debate is moot for now and while Quebec's economy is booming, polls suggest voters haven't forgotten the austerity measures the Liberal government put in place in order to get there.

But do Quebec voters care enough about front-runner François Legault's as-yet-undefined goal of finding them more jobs paying $30 and $40 an hour?

And can the Liberals stave off what might become a historic collapse during a 39-day campaign?

The ruling Quebec Liberals were eager to start the campaign early, reasoning that given more time, Legault, their main opponent, would trip up and voters would return to the common-sense Liberal fold.

After all, Quebec's economy is doing well, with a series of balanced budgets and one of the lowest unemployment rates the province has seen in years.

The struggle will be to convince voters come Oct. 1 that the hardships they faced while the government reduced services to save money were worth it.

Legault's strategy is to try and capitalize on that voter dissatisfaction with the tight spending controls, promising to reduce taxes and find better-paying jobs.

Stepping on your own banana peel

Former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau, who made his own share of gaffes, liked to say that politicians were prone to committing "auto-pélure-de-bananisation," stepping on their own banana peels.

Rather than witnessing Legault slip up, this week, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard stepped on a totally avoidable banana peel when he ousted MNA François Ouimet.

The move cast doubt on Couillard's own reliability and judgment. Ouimet has been the Liberal MNA for the Marquette riding on Montreal's West Island since 1994.

Despite keeping a mandatory low partisan profile because of his position as deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Ouimet obtained more than 60 per cent of his riding's vote in the 2014 provincial election.

At a tearful news conference Wednesday, Ouimet recalled how Couillard had looked him in the eye in May and shook his hand, promising that he would once again be the Liberal candidate in Marquette.

Liberal MNA François Ouimet said he was 'hurt,' knowing his candidacy in the Marquette riding, which he has held since 1994, was handed to former NHL player Enrico Ciccone. (CBC)

Less than 24 hours later, Couillard presented Enrico Ciccone — a former National Hockey League player, better known for his fist-work than his scoring record — as a "candidate of great quality" for the very same riding.

When a reporter confronted Couillard on his credibility, the party leader said, "I keep my promises."

A random sampling of Marquette voters questioned by CBC found support for Ouimet and questions about Couillard's decision to impose Ciccone as their Liberal candidate.

CAQ leading on dissatisfaction more than mandate?

In poll after poll, Quebec voters have expressed a preference for Legault's seven-year-old Coalition Avenir Québec.

One conducted by Léger Marketing for Quebecor Media between Aug. 10 and 14 has the CAQ in majority government territory, with 36 per cent of voters leaning its way.

Meanwhile, 30 per cent of the 2,488 sampled voters chose Couillard's Liberals, indicating a larger gap between the two parties than in previous surveys.

The Parti Québécois, led by Jean-François Lisée, trails at 18 per cent and Québec Solidaire, whose leading figure is Manon Massé, has 10 per cent, according to Léger.

However, the support for Legault and the CAQ may be about dissatisfaction with a government in power for a total of nearly 15 years.

The CAQ leader's language stance and plans to ban authority figures in the public sector, such as judges, prosecutors, police officers and teachers, from wearing the hijab or other religious head coverings may not be what voters want to hear.

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault speaks to delegates at a CAQ general council meeting in Lévis. (Jacques Boissinot/CANADIAN PRESS)

An Ipsos poll for La Presse in May found that 78 per cent of Quebecers think politicians spend too much time talking about religious differences.

Couillard attempted to weigh into the identity politics debate last year, with Bill 62, a proposed ban on face coverings in public, which was widely protested and suspended by a judge for potentially violating Quebec and Canada's charters of rights.

His Liberal party still favours more immigration, noting labour shortages in Quebec's prospering economy.

Quebecers alienated from all parties

Beyond preference for parties, the polls offer some other insights into voters' minds this year.

The Léger poll indicated 45 per cent of Quebec voters could still change their choice. The La Presse Ipsos poll said 81 per cent of the respondents said they felt the political parties are not concerned with people like them.

That poll, conducted at the end of April, surveyed 2,001 respondents.

The challenge for all parties in this Quebec election will be firing the imagination of voters.

From left, François Legault, Jean-François Lisée, Philippe Couillard and Manon Massé answered and debated questions from young voters Friday night, amid a relaxed atmosphere at Concordia University. (Radio-Canada)

The sovereignty issue isn't a top item for the first time in decades. The Ipsos poll showed 74 per cent of respondents consider the debate passé. Legault, once a PQ minister, has said his new party would never hold a referendum and Lisée promised not to within a first mandate, at least.

Still, Couillard has clung to the old fear, suggesting Legault, whose entourage includes several former PQ supporters, cannot be trusted.

While Legault rejects the notion of sovereignty, he does try to capitalize on PQ issues, such as language and immigration, saying at a leaders' forum at Concordia Friday that French is in danger in Quebec and all newcomers must be tested on their French.

There is now less than a week left before the writ drops and not much time after that for the Liberals and the CAQ to find issues that will truly hook Quebec voters.

About the Author

Kevin Dougherty

Journalist

Kevin Dougherty is a Quebec City-based journalist for CBC News. Follow him on Twitter @doughertykr

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