Marois duels the others

Quebec Election

Like she had pockets full of bees, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois shouted, jumped, tuk-tuk’d pointed, waved and signed her way through a two-hour romp as she left her primary opponent humming.

The first debate of this Quebecois exercise in synchronized indignation bounced and bumbled through the economy, prognosticated on the public service, skied through corruption before finally doing a face plant on Quebec’s whacky national plan.

Notwithstanding the preordained rest-of-Canada pronouncements that Liberal chief Philippe Couillard left his main opponent in the dust, it’s all-but-certain that Marois will come out the obvious winner in the tussle.

While she floundered a bit against Jean Charest’s debate acumen, Marois made mincemeat out of his mild-mannered successor.

Couillard tried and failed to make anything stick to Marois, and ended up doubling-down on the referendum question.  The Premier, however, sidestepped that from the outset in saying that there would be no referendum…until Quebecers are ready.

While it’s true that no referendum…until Quebecers are ready is basically saying yes to a referendum, it did give the Parti Quebecois leader room to parry the attacks.  Her chipper style made her look impassioned and invested in what she was saying, while Couillard’s sleepy aloofness failed to make much of an impression at all.

But the debate also gave some oxygen to the other party leaders, François Legault and Françoise David.

Legault has awkwardly swan dived in the polls over recent weeks, and needed a boost.  He didn’t get it, but at least he tried.  He had a few good interventions, few and far inbetween, where he managed to grill Philippe Couillard on not being the financial wizard that he claims to be.  The boost might be too marginal to offer much momentum.

David, meanwhile, did what she did best in rising above the methane and offering a curt, concise and well-sold pitch for her boutique party.  The freedom of being a Montreal-centric party meant that she could carve out a chunk in Marois for supporting oil development and slap around Couillard over supporting private healthcare.  Her speeches were unfailing the most impassioned, her reasoning the most coherent, and her politics the most likeable.  That’s the great brilliance of being the affable head of a party that faces an fraction of the scrutiny of its larger cohorts.

Just the same, the themes rising from the ashes of the debate spell positive trends for Marois.

Couillard, for his part, looks more obsessed with a referendum than Marois.  David has offered a sovereigntist flank for Marois to waffle back towards indifference.  Legault has played foil to Couillard, boxing in the Liberal leader on economic issues.  Marois, on the balance, came out as stymied as the others on the economic portfolio, clear and coherent on managing the public service, defensive on the possible ethical failings of Pierre-Karl Peladeau, and consistent and clear on the charter of values.

It wasn’t a slam dunk for the Pequist-in-chief, but her animated style, that occasionally bordered on air-traffic-controller levels of hand movements, had far and away the cleaner vision of the two main leaders.

What’s more is that it sets up the final weeks of the race.  While Marois took down her own sails with a haphazard wandering into the inane specifics of a referendum, tonight marked an exiting of the brush, and tomorrow she could find her way out of the forest altogether.  While Couillard appears to want to define Marois as the trigger-happy separatist, he should be careful — as he wasn’t this evening — not to put himself too far out and let his brand be defined by his opponents.  If he cannot firmly grasp the message that Marois is bad for business, and that he offers a better-managed alternative, he’ll let slip the voters that he’s won over recent days as he showed more focus and discipline than his main rival.

Legault should watch back the debate and recognize his effectiveness as a prosecutor, demolishing the others’ financial cadres while billing himself as the qualified CEO that Quebec so desperately needs (indeed, he would not let us forget over two hours of debate that he was the head of Air Transat.)

David would do well to continue on her current path and reap the benefits of keeping her elbows up next to Marois.  If her party is to increase its seat count, the one way forward is directly through several long-time PQ Members of the National Assembly.  She should consider, however, targeting the individual MNAs that she needs to be, rather than firing grapeshot at the party as a whole.

And then there’s Couillard.  Oscillating between being a penny wise and a pound foolish to getting lost in the vast ocean of generalities, Couillard needs to figure out a more coherent message than the one he trotted out tonight, only to see it shot onstage.  Whenever he tries to dig into Marois’ job numbers, Marois offers her own stats and wallops him rhetorically.  Whenever he stakes a claim on the charter, Marois reminds him of his waffling.  Whenever he trumpets his anti-referendum bias, Marois casts it aside and steals his trick of committing to focus on the economy.

In a word, Marois is effusive, Couillard is obfuscated, Legault is finding his footing and David is in her groove.



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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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