Harper a target in Quebec election debate

The woman who could be elected Quebec’s premier in just over two weeks used the opening statement of Sunday’s televised leaders’ debate to attack Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

MONTREAL — The woman who could be elected Quebec’s premier in just over two weeks used the opening statement of Sunday’s televised leaders’ debate to attack Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In her opening remarks, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois offered a quick hint of her party’s strategy with the Sept. 4 election approaching: confrontation with the Harper Tories.

Marois did not even make a reference to her own party’s raison d’etre, Quebec independence. There was simply a token reference to the prime minister.

“I will never let Stephen Harper choose for us,” Marois said, in an oblique reminder of spats with the Tories over employment insurance, justice policy and transfer payments.

The PQ has said that if it’s elected it will seek a transfer of powers from Ottawa in areas like employment insurance and immigration policy. If the Tories refuse, they say, they will make the case that Quebec doesn’t belong in Canada.

Marois also attacked the Charest Liberals and their scandals, and suggested hers is the only opposition party that has an experienced-enough team to take charge: “We can end this Liberal regime that has tarnished our image around the world.”

In his own opening statement, Premier Jean Charest immediately confronted the ethics scandals that have rocked his government.

He said there had been myriad “unfounded” allegations against his Liberals. What matters to Quebecers, he said, is economic performance. Charest mentioned the better-than-average job performance in Quebec since the 2008 recession, compared to the rest of the country.

Charest suggested that his opponents had proven themselves to be fiscally irresponsible this spring, by conceding to the demands of student protesters.

“The next Quebec government will have difficult choices to make,” Charest said. “We will need a responsible government.”

Charest, later in the debate, referred to questionable fundraising practices of his opponents during a muscular exchange on ethics.

The leader of the new Coalition party, Francois Legault, stuck to a simple message of change.

“We will show the door to career politicians,” Legault said, wearing a blue tie and red pocket square that hinted at his desire to attract supporters from all parties.

“It’s enough… Things need to change.”

Quebec’s provincial election campaign entered a new phase Sunday night with the first in a string of televised leadership debates. It was the first of four debates in four consecutive nights, giving voters a chance to better weigh their options in the Sept. 4 election.

Sunday’s debate was the only one that will include all four leaders of the biggest parties — while the remaining ones will feature a series of one-on-ones. Sunday’s four topic segments were: the economy, governance, social policy, the national question and identity.

A successful showing in the debate by Marois could help solidify her lead over the competition.

Opinion polls have her party solidly ahead of the Charest Liberals and the new Coalition for Quebec’s Future.

But a strong showing by Charest or Legault could have a major impact, given the relative tightness of the three-way race.

Francoise David, co-spokesperson for the social-democratic Quebec solidaire, also took part. Unlike the PQ, in her opening statement she did mention her desire to make Quebec a country.

Three one-on-one debates are scheduled for Monday through Wednesday, featuring face-offs between Charest, Legault, and Marois.

In Sunday’s debate, a recurring theme was attacks on the trustworthiness and preparedness to govern of Legault’s new party.

Charest joked that the former PQ cabinet minister couldn’t be trusted on the most fundamental of questions. He referred to Legault’s recent statement that he would vote against Quebec independence in a referendum — a statement that stunned some of his old allies.

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