Quebec election campaign veering from one shrill attack to another

Lacking a central campaign issue that grabs voters, Quebec party leaders have been relying more on innuendo and sly attacks this past week to try to create momentum. But, as Michelle Gagnon writes, these are the kind of jabs that cut both ways.

Lacking a central issue, Quebec party leaders leaning more on innuendo

Fishing for votes? Or at least a campaign issue, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois tours a children's indoor play centre in Blainville on Tuesday. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters)

From the outset, the snap election in Quebec was Pauline Marois' to lose. But with each passing day, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard is increasingly everyone's mark.

After lurching ahead in three successive polls, including the latest large online survey from Léger that gives the Liberals a seven-point lead, all are now intent on bringing him down.

One of the more shrill attacks came from Bernard Drainville, the Parti Quebecois minister in charge of the charter of values.

In a bizarre attempt to retrieve the PQ's lost lead, Drainville began insisting last week that Couillard is for niqabs and burkas, as if that were an actual Liberal position.

Drainville repeated the PQ's plan to ban face coverings in all dealings with the government, and even suggested that injunction could be extended to university students, education being considered a "government service" in the PQ's configuration of things.

Asked if a woman wearing a niqab could call on the police for help in an emergency, a cornered Drainville had to admit, "she will have to uncover herself, but if you tell me she is unconscious and needs help, we will look after everyone."

Aside from being absurdly reductive — and a signal that the PQ's campaign was flailing about —​ Drainville's intervention seems also to have been largely ineffective in rekindling Quebecers' zeal for the charter.

So the PQ moved on to other potential Liberal soft spots.

Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard, largely unknown at the beginning of the race now finds himself the front-runner and the subject of daily attacks. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

Following the first of leaders' debate last week, Marois tried to hit two birds with one stone by taking aim at the leader of the small, left-leaning pro-independence party, Quebec Solidaire's Françoise David, by suggesting David's attacks on Marois were assisting the Liberals.

(A vote for Quebec Solidaire would undoubtedly take votes from the PQ and probably help the Liberals in some places, but in Quebec terms to suggest complicity between the two parties is about as improbable as Bloc Quebecois voters suddenly aligning themselves with Stephen Harper.)

Then came the PQ's pre-emptive strike on the weekend against potential voter fraud, and the rather overheated suggestion that out-of-province students might be registering to try to steal the election. (The province's chief electoral officer quickly slapped that notion down, but it did show the extent to which the ruling party was willing to cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process to win the support of certain groups.)

Finally, yesterday, we saw the PQ file an official complaint with the Quebec elections office against the Liberals for $428,000 of political financing that the PQ says is unaccounted for in Liberal books.

"What is this, a secret fund?" PQ minister Pierre Duchesne asked, then simply left the question hanging.

The integrity factor

Marois, of course, hasn't been the only party leader to cast aspersions during this campaign. François Legault, leader of the third-party Coalition Avenir Quebec, largely escaped the spotlight during the leaders' debate.

But he soon turned into an unexpected anti-Couillard attacker.

Suddenly foul-mouthed, he spent the early days this week lacing into the Liberals on just about everything, most memorably qualifying their financial record as "shit".

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault has also been after Couillard this week. At one point he even claimed it was a two-party contest between his CAQ and the Liberals. (Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press)

Other than making his wife grin, what such bravado did for him remains unclear, but it lent a helping hand to Marois who is now trying to make integrity the order of the day.

Over and over, Marois and her ministers reminded Quebecers that Couillard's Liberals include 18 people who were in office with former premier Jean Charest when the party resisted for the longest time the creation of a commission of inquiry into corruption.

It's guilt by association, of course. But as a strategy it may yet prove to be Marois' best bet.

At once, it allows the PQ to lay claim to the corruption clean-up, and insinuates the idea that a vote for Couillard will return Quebec to its bad old ways.

Mind you, at this juncture it also strongly suggests that Marois would rather be running against Jean Charest than Philippe Couillard.

Worse, the strategy falls short the minute you consider that integrity, much like the referendum question that occupied the first weeks of the campaign, cuts both ways. Which is where Couillard went yesterday.

Coming down from the high moral ground of refusing to relive the 2012 campaign (when Charest was still leader), Couillard contributed a bit of his own to the innuendo campaign.

He countered the suggestion of corruption by offering to make public his and his spouse's financial records, assets and all.

He then called on his opponents to do the same. Couillard later claimed he wasn't trying to embarrass anyone specifically, but the manoeuvre was a sure way to revive the controversy surrounding Marois' husband, Claude Blanchet, whose name was raised at the Charbonneau corruption commission in relation to an alleged influence-peddling scheme.

Marois has repeatedly insisted her husband is innocent of any wrongdoing, and was quick to reject Couillard's challenge, claiming he was creating yet another diversion.

But then, oddly, for someone who has been trying to get off the referendum wheel with all these recent allegations, she got right back on, and accused Couillard of fear-mongering and manipulating Quebecers into believing that this election was about a referendum.

"This is not an election about a referendum," she said.

Maybe not. But many voters may well wonder at this stage what, indeed, it is about.

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She has covered domestic and international affairs, including the European economic crisis, the mass migration of refugees, and the Paris and Brussels attacks.


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