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On eve of final debate, Marois hopes to shift to ethics

PQ leader Pauline Marois responds to a question during a news conference Wednesday, March 26, 2014 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

If Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois has a plan B to revive a struggling campaign, this would probably be a good time to launch it.

The final leaders' debate Thursday may be Ms. Marois's last chance before the April 7 vote to shift the campaign away from the ballot question her main opponent, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, has imposed: whether the province wants a referendum on sovereignty.

Ms. Marois has had some success in recent days shifting attention to ethics and integrity under nine years of Liberal rule which ended in 2012. Recycled allegations and a few new details grabbed headlines Wednesday on the eve of the final televised debate.

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But the mudslinging has gone both ways, with attention swinging to police investigations into party fundraising by the Parti Québécois as well as the Liberals.

"Never will I accept that the Parti Québécois be compared to the Liberal party when it comes to party financing and the awarding of contracts," Ms. Marois said on Wednesday.

Ms. Marois said there is no PQ equivalent of Tony Tomassi, a former Liberal minister who faces criminal charges of fraud. Testimony at the Charbonneau Commission on corruption suggested he has close ties to members of organized crime.

Mr. Couillard responded by distancing himself from the legacy left by his predecessor Jean Charest, arguing that he was leading a renewed Liberal party, one that has settled the issues of its troubled past.

"I'm not playing in the reality show of the past," Mr. Couillard said. "What makes me take notice is this false attitude of virginity by the PQ when they too were once clearly implicated (in questionable party financing schemes)."

Mr. Couillard responded with a clever strategy of his own to show his finances are clean. He and his spouse agreed to publish their 2012 income tax returns and all financial holdings. He demanded the other party leaders and their spouses do the same.

The move was aimed at embarrassing Ms. Marois and her husband, millionaire financier Claude Blanchet, and it may have worked. Ms. Marois refused, saying she and her husband have already complied with all ethics rules.

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Wiretap conversations played at the Charbonneau Commission indicated that one of Mr. Blanchet's companies profited from his close ties to the Quebec Federation of Labour Solidarity Fund. Suspicions were raised over Mr. Blanchet's assets and Ms. Marois' refusal to divulge his financial holding could make her an easy target in the upcoming televised debates.

But this is the gamble the PQ was willing to take as it desperately looks to swinging public attention away from a possible referendum. By warning that a majority PQ government would hold another referendum on sovereignty, Mr. Couillard had tapped into voter apprehension. The strategy siphoned support away from the fledgling Coalition Avenir Québec and thrust the Liberals in the lead ahead of the PQ.

With their political careers on the line, Ms. Marois and CAQ Leader François Legault have resorted to issuing dire warnings of their own alerting voters that should the Liberals form the next government it will mark a setback in the fight against corruption.

Mr. Couillard's opponents also repeatedly raised questions about his business ties to Dr. Arthur Porter, the former head of a major Montreal hospital who is fighting extradition from Panama to avoid facing criminal charges in Canada.

As the frontrunner, Mr. Couillard is expecting to be bombarded with accusations. The one who is likely to strike hardest is Mr. Legault who, unlike Ms. Marois, accepted Mr. Couillard's gambit and announced he will fully divulge his financial assets.

"I'm not going to let Philippe Couillard derail the campaign or create a diversion away from his own problems with Dr. Porter by making these demands," Mr. Legault said on Wednesday in an interview on Montreal radio station 98.5 FM.

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His comments, tainted with harsh language, were just a prelude to the upcoming debate that proposes a format that may easily lend itself to bitter confrontations. Each leader will face the other three opponents in a series of six one-on-one debates.

All eyes will be riveted on the Couillard-Marois and Couillard-Legault confrontations which may have a significant impact on the campaign heading into the final week.

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About the Authors
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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