Quebec’s four opposition party leaders attacked Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault on the environment, the cost of living and his management of the economy in the last debate of the election campaign Thursday, leaving Mr. Legault on the defensive.
Sharp exchanges about climate change saw the centre-right Mr. Legault justifying his efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in his four years as Premier. He boasted of Hydro-Québec’s recent agreement with New York to sell the state electricity, and attacked a plan by the leftist Québec Solidaire to tax highly polluting vehicles, saying it was “noble” but “we have to look at the impact on citizens.”
Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois responded by accusing the CAQ Leader of scare-mongering, a theme he returned to throughout the evening.
“Put away the Halloween decorations,” said Mr. Nadeau-Dubois. “Stop making people afraid. You should be bringing people together.”
“Stop playing at Wonderland,” replied Mr. Legault.
Mr. Legault, who has a comfortable lead in the polls, struggled to appear poised. He received criticism for a chippy performance in the previous debate. He interrupted his opponents and hectored them with repeated questions. While Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade spoke about the Third Link, a proposed commuter tunnel between Quebec City and its suburb Lévis, Mr. Legault repeatedly interjected, “What are you proposing? Nothing.”
The Liberals and Parti Québécois, long-time adversaries in the running debate about Quebec independence, barely laid a glove on each other, even agreeing on some areas of policy such as the need for more home care for seniors. The declining prominence of the sovereignty question has left both parties finding it difficult to connect with voters, and their leaders were visibly pleased when the subject was briefly revived during the debate.
Asked whether he would vote Yes or No in a referendum, Mr. Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister and ardent separatist, declined to answer, saying he doesn’t want a referendum. He founded his party in 2011 as a nationalist alternative to the old divide over independence, but Ms. Anglade used his answer to insist she was the only clearly federalist option.
The rise of the left-wing Québec Solidaire, represented by charismatic former student leader Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, and the Conservative Party of Quebec, led by popular former talk radio host Éric Duhaime, has further splintered the partisan landscape.
All four opposition parties find themselves bunched around 15 per cent in the polls, with no clear challenger to Mr. Legault. That left the CAQ Leader fighting on four fronts and appearing irritated by the task.
The pile-on continued on the subject of health care. PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said the effort to get more health money from the federal government was pointless and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t even bother to negotiate any more. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois criticized the provincial government’s plans to allow private “mini-hospitals” to take pressure off the public system, arguing that private health care was already increasing and that if it worked, “we would know it.”
Repeatedly shaking his head, Mr. Legault accused his opponents of believing in “magic” and demanded that Mr. Nadeau-Dubois say whether he would deny a patient emergency surgery in a private clinic because of his “ideology.”
Québec Solidaire has been criticized for its proposal to raise $2.65-billion annually through a wealth tax on the richest five per cent of Quebeckers. Better health care and public transport cost money, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said. “I’m not ashamed to say we’ll go get that from the wealthiest five per cent.”
The Parti Québécois, meanwhile, wants to generate revenue by taxing industries such as the pharmaceutical sector or oil companies. “The money of Quebeckers is being siphoned at the pump by people ripping us off. It’s a cartel,” Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon said.
“Come on, if we tax the oil companies, they’ll pass it to consumers,” Mr. Legault said.
Mr. Duhaime, however, noted that prices went down in Ontario after Premier Doug Ford dropped the gas tax rate in his province.
Mr. Legault often boasts that he has closed the wealth gap between Ontario and Quebec. “He’s obsessed with Ontario,” Ms. Anglade said, adding that the economic situation cannot improve because the Legault government has failed to address Quebec’s chronic shortage of manpower.
The leaders illustrated the major divides between them and their five parties when asked why they got into politics. The populist Mr. Legault replied that he was proud to have become Premier despite his working-class background.
Ms. Anglade, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said she wanted to allow all Quebeckers to “live with dignity and live out their dreams” wherever they’re from. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is in politics, he said, because he was “anxious about the future” and that “this election is the last chance for the fight against climate change.”
Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon said he wanted to make Quebec a country so that it could be a “normal society that can shine around the world.” Mr. Duhaime, meanwhile, who has railed against public health measures during the pandemic, said he wanted to protect civil liberties.
Facing a challenge from the Conservatives in the Quebec City region, Mr. Legault attacked its leader for his “irresponsible” opposition to measures that he said saved lives, calling Mr. Duhaime an “agitator who profited from the suffering of Quebeckers.”
The election is on Oct. 3.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.