Charest wins a split decision

Document awakened premier. Leaders had a few good lines, but didn't display much killer instinct

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, March 14, 2007

One look at the five time blocks for last night's leaders' debate left no doubt any defining moment was likely to occur in the last one, on "the political future of Quebec." But, in fact, an old memo provided more of a central focus to the show.

First, Mario Dumont, opening his bid to be well regarded and not just well liked: "The ADQ has done its homework and I've done my homework," he said. Pointing an accusatory finger at Charest, he said: "In a few minutes, you're going to ask for a second chance. You don't deserve it." And then, carney-barker style: "A vote for the ADQ is a vote for you."

Charest, for openers, maintained he has done well but could have done better. Quebec is no longer the highest-taxed jurisdiction in North America. Quebec's credit rating has been increased. The economy is strong. The eternal battles with Ottawa are over, the fiscal imbalance is about to be redressed, and Quebecers are now recognized as a nation within Canada.

Andre Boisclair surpassed expectations just by delivering a crisp opening statement, and tried to stir his slumbering base by promising a referendum.

The first two segments passed without incident, but then suddenly in the third, on the economy and managing the state, Dumont brandished a 4-year-old transport department memo warning of problems with overpasses on Autoroute 19.

This was right out of the blue, "a rabbit out of the hat," as Charest said. It was also against the debate rules to use a prop - Dumont wasn't supposed to show it, but he could read from it, and his reading was that Charest should have known about the danger of de la Concorde overpass collapse last fall, which was, therefore, his fault.

This wasn't about the management of the state, but about micro-management, as if the premier should see every piece of paper written in the bowels of the bureaucracy. It was the kind of stunt Stockwell Day pulled in the 2000 federal debate with his "no 2-tier healthcare" card - and could have the same bad result.

For a leader on the rise, whose objective is to be taken seriously as a potential opposition leader, this was an unforced and inexplicable error. Worse, it was cheap and cheesy.

But Dumont recovered in a sharp exchange with Boisclair. When the PQ leader accused him of being old-style, out-of-date, Duplessist rather than an "autonomist," Dumont replied the sovereignty speech was so dated it was in black and white. A direct hit.

Until that exchange, Boisclair had shown no evidence of killer instinct. In the final segment on Quebec's future, he wasn't cornered by Charest on another referendum, and may have won back some disillusioned Pequistes parked with Mario. He may also have done well enough to pull out of his tailspin.

Throughout the first hour, Charest seemed to be telling viewers they were getting very, drowsy. He looked pretty drowsy himself, reciting his government's achievements. He bore the incumbent's burden of defending the record, while looking like a premier.

He can thank Dumont and his cheap stunt for waking him up. For the remainder of the debate, Charest was dominant.

In the section on Quebec's future, he clearly proposed that the future is now, in a functional federalism delivering results for Quebecers. It's significant that he refrained from questioning Boisclair's maturity or character, and equally didn't attack Dumont on a personal basis. It's no mystery the Liberals don't want to take down Boisclair any farther, reckoning the votes he loses are going to Mario. And the Liberals have learned there is no gain in personal attacks on Mario - the voters know him and like him.

So Charest gets a split decision. Boisclair was still on his feet at the end. And Mario led with his chin once, and may pay for it. Or not.

 
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