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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

After the sound and fury, a Quebec election still up for grabs Add to ...

Let’s hope there were showers near the television studio where Quebec’s political leaders “debated” each other Thursday night.

So much mud was hurled that a postgame soaping would have been the order of the night. To boot, so much rhetoric was unleashed and so much predictable exaggeration enveloped the airing of obligatory fears about the fragility of French, about the threats to Quebec’s “identity” from a handful of people (Muslim and Jewish, mostly) who work for the state wearing religious symbols, and about how Quebec will balance its budget while spending lots more money but not raising taxes, that anyone who endured the two hours must have been even more confused than when the debate began.

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As these affairs go, it was actually quite gripping – provided that you liked constant interruptions, finger-pointing and a lot of mud-slinging from leaders who piously insisted how much they deplore salissage, the dirtying of their opponents, but couldn’t resist the temptation.

The principal target of the mud was Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, a testament to him and his party. No sooner had last week’s polls shown the Liberals leading than the mud started flying, confirming what the numbers had shown.

The Harper government has done something unique in Canadian politics, by directing negative ads at the leaders of other parties as soon as they take up their new positions. Normally, parties resort to gutter tactics when behind or desperate or both, which is why Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois (who will be swiftly hurled into the hell of PQ vengeance if her party loses power) and Coalition Avenir Québec chief François Legault delighted in dragging up old accusations against Mr. Couillard, all of them phony or flimsy.

No matter. Mr. Couillard was the leader in the polls, and he took most of the abuse. Whether any of the mud will stick till election day, only time will tell. He certainly tried to look the most prime ministerial of the four, firm and unflappable, whereas Ms. Marois looked and sounded like a very old politician who really did have something to hide – not about her past, but about why she called the election: to win a majority with which to organize a referendum on independence, an ambition palpably obvious but politically injurious, and therefore best denied or explained with splendidly contradictory obfuscations.

Mr. Legault, his party bleeding support to the Liberals, figured he had to try “le tout pour le tout” and so hurled accusations hither and yon, interrupted constantly, repeated himself and proved to be an equal-opportunity accuser against Mr. Couillard and Ms. Marois.

He was right about one thing: that Quebeckers in a large majority don’t want another referendum. But for those who want to vote on that basis, the logical place to mark a ballot is Liberal. He’s right about another thing: that Quebec taxes and provincial debt are very high. But cutting a bunch of civil servants, which seems to be his standard remedy, won’t do much about either challenge. Nonetheless, the postdebate punditocracy awarded Mr. Legault high marks for a verbally pugilistic performance, as if sound and fury decided these affairs.

The real winner, stylistically speaking, was Françoise David, leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire. She was so calm, reassuring and pleasant, like the oldest, patient sister in a large family, and her answers were so mercifully short, that it was easy to forget about the implausibility of what she was actually saying, notably that Quebec could raise another $13-billion from corporations and the wealthy (already the highest-taxed in North America) to spend on a vast array of social and environmental programs, without a single negative impact on the province’s economy.

Debates, if they are “won” at all, are not decided the night in question, but rather in the subsequent days as television shows select clips, media personalities pronounce, and water-cooler impressions circulate among ordinary voters. No leader stuttered or stumbled Thursday night, all being well-briefed on their talking points and experienced in the glare of the studio.

The leaders had already engaged in one debate; Thursday night’s was the second and last. It seemed like a match nul in an election where the trends have been toward the Liberals, but the outcome remains in doubt.

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