Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was on the defensive when it came to his government’s track record on the health-care system and economy during the first debate of the party leaders.
François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), Jean-François Lisée of the Parti Québécois (PQ), Quebec Solidaire‘s Manon Massé and Couillard all participated in an attempt to woo voters ahead of the Oct. 1 election.
Couillard, who is seeking a second mandate as premier, was forced to make a case for his government’s choices as his opponents attacked widespread budget compressions over the last four years.
When the first question from a voter focused on the state of long-term care facilities, both Lisée and Legault were quick to slam the Liberals’ handling of the health network.
“You are responsible for the deterioration of home care,” said Lisée, who accused Couillard of a lack of compassion.
Legault, who is the front-runner in the polls, said the Liberals’ track record when it comes to the treatment of seniors is “shameful.”
“Our elderly have the right to be treated with more dignity, so we need more staff in these long-term care facilities and to have them renovated,” said Legault.
The leader of the Quebec Liberals defended his government, saying, “There has been more money than ever for home care,” and that it developed superclinics to ease the burden off hospitals across the province. He said he would also hire 1,000 more orderlies to provide better services to patients.
When responding to criticism over his government’s measures, Couillard said they led to several balanced budgets for Quebec and allowed the province to pay down debt.
WATCH: Quebec parties promise more spending for seniors’ care
Legault, however, also accused of the Liberals of reducing services to children with special needs.
“I’ll never forgive you for that,” said Legault.
Clashes on immigration
The Quebec party leaders also touched upon the topic of immigration — a theme that has been a hot button issue since the beginning of the 39-day election campaign.
Legault has already stated his intention to reduce immigration by about 10,000 people per year. He also reiterated his position that immigrants would have to pass a French test after three years or face expulsion if the CAQ were to form the next provincial government.
“I think it’s important that newcomers understand our values,” he said, adding his party would provide French classes for free.
The proposal was quickly panned by the other party leaders, with Couillard accusing Legault of creating an “expulsion test,” and said “You scare them.”
“We will never do an expulsion test,” Couillard said.
Lisée, for his part, said that it was necessary for immigrants to know French before arriving in Quebec — but he also attacked Legault’s plan. A CAQ government would create thousands of “paperless” people threatened with expulsion by province, he said.
WATCH: Quebec’s campaigning political parties have been talking a lot about immigration – but have they been giving Quebecers the whole picture?
During the debate, Massé pointed out the need for greater integration for newcomers. She also called for more immigrants in public service.
“The state must be exemplary,” she said.
On education and daycare
On the topic of education, Lisée said the PQ would impose a law against budget cuts to education and is proposing to strengthen the province’s daycare services by adding 17,000 extra spots.
Québec Solidaire, a left-leaning party, said it would eliminate subsidized funding for Quebec’s French private schools.
“Our public schools were pushed to the side,” Massé said.
Couillard, for his part, dismissed the notion and said it was up to parents to be able to choose if they wanted to send their children to private school.
“For parents, it must remain an area of freedom of choice,” he said.
While the CAQ and the Liberals have promised to provide free kindergarten for four-year-old children, both Lisée and Massé said they prefer to boost the province’s daycare system.
Thursday night marked the first of three televised debates between the four party leaders over the span of one week. They will also participate in an English debate on Monday and another French debate next Thursday.
Quebecers head to the polls on Oct. 1.
—with files from The Canadian Press