The tension was almost palpable as Quebec party leaders launched into confrontational and fiery exchanges for the crucial and final debate in the provincial election campaign.
Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) Leader François Legault, Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard, Parti Québécois (PQ) Leader Jean-François Lisée, and Québec Solidaire spokesperson Manon Massé faced off for the third and last time before voters head to the polls on Oct. 1.
While the two other debates — one in French and the other in English — had a traditional opening statement and four-way format, this time the leaders took each other on in one-on-one exchanges.
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Legault, the front-runner in the polls, has been noticeably absent on the campaign trail this week after polls suggested support is slipping for his party. He recently came under fire for his proposal on immigration, but he struck a more conciliatory tone when discussing his plans for newcomers.
“I am not perfect,” he said.
“Sometimes I make mistakes. But I listen and I change.”
Turning to Couillard, he added, “You should stop giving lessons and listen to the population.”
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The CAQ leader has been criticized by his opponents for promising to force immigrants to leave Quebec if they don’t learn French within three years and his position was once again targeted during the final debate.
“It’s him who scares Quebecers,” said Couillard. Legault shot back that his party “only wants to expel the Quebec Liberals.”
Massé, for her part, accused Legault of playing politics to win votes.
“I believe that you don’t have anything against immigrants,” she said.
“I’ve known you long enough to say that.”
The party leaders also sparred on the hot-button issue of secularism with differing opinions on Quebec civil servants wearing religious symbols at work.
“Do you want a police officer to wear a hijab?” Legault asked Couillard, suggesting he ignored the wishes of Quebecers.
Couillard accused him of removing people’s rights, shooting back “How many police officers in Quebec wear a hijab?”
The CAQ leader argued a premier “needs to foresee” and be more proactive in promoting secularism.
‘There are people who are trying to live’
During the debate, Massé and Legault disagreed over how to retain Quebec workers and boost salaries across the province.
Legault has repeatedly said he would like to offer higher-paying jobs.
“We can be rich. We’re capable of doing better,” he said, referring to the Liberals’ longstanding reign in Quebec.
The province should improve working conditions and raise minimum wage from $12 to $15, said Massé.
“There are people who are trying to live,” she said.
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Québec Solidaire’s plans when it comes to running the province’s finances and economy aren’t realistic, according to Couillard.
“You’re putting everything on a credit card,” he said.
‘Who pulls the strings in Québec Solidaire?’
At the beginning of the one-on-one exchanges, Lisée diverted from the topic of health care and launched into a series of questions about Québec Solidaire’s party structure.
While the party has no official leaders, it has Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois as co-spokespersons.
“You’re the co-spokesperson, but you’re not the leader,” said Lisée. “Who is your leader?”
Massé looked somewhat frustrated as Lisée kept questioning her about who holds the real power in the party.
“Who pulls the strings in Québec Solidaire?” Lisée asked, ignoring pleas from the debate moderator for him to stick to the subject of health care.
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“We learned how to share power,” Massé quipped.
Recent polls have suggested the fourth-placed party has been gaining ground and could pick up seats at the expense of the PQ in Montreal.
Attacks on Liberals’ handling of health network
The party leaders didn’t shy away from criticizing the Liberals’ track record of the health care system and widespread budget compressions over the last four years.
Couillard said his team saved money to reinvest in public services and offer more to Quebecers, including seniors.
“I can’t let you say Mr. Couillard that you saved Quebec,” said Lisée.
The Liberal leader was also under fire for doctors specialists’ salaries. Legault called it problematic, saying it leaves little money for nurses and other crucial workers in the field.
“He just doesn’t understand,” Legault said about Couillard. “Doctors (in the province) are the best paid in Canada, but nurses are underpaid. It’s shameful.”
Lisée also agreed, saying it was time to invest in nurses and pharmacists in order to better serve patients.
“It’s time to stop saying doctors will take care of everything,” he said.
— With files from Global’s Raquel Fletcher and The Canadian Press