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Quebec party leaders face off in pivotal first debate of 2018 campaign

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was forced to defend his party’s track record over the last four years, especially on health care and education, two of the central themes in the provincial party leaders debate that took place Thursday evening.

The four main party leaders made their pitch to Quebecers in the first televised showdown at a critical juncture in the campaign, with polls suggesting a tight race and nearly half of voters still undecided.

The Liberals’ Philippe Couillard, Coalition Avenir Québec’s François Legault, Jean-François Lisée of the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé all took part.

Health care, which polls show is a key priority for Quebec voters, is the sector that saw major budget cuts in the first two years of the Liberals’ mandate and dramatic reforms under Health Minister Gaétan Barrette.

The debate on that issue began with a question from Raymonde Chagnon, an elderly woman in Mirabel, Que., who described the stifling heat, poor food and malodorous conditions her husband has endured since having to move into a public long-term care home (CHSLD) three months ago.

Legault called the situation “shameful,” and Lisée went further, describing the case of one woman with multiple sclerosis who’d had her home-care service cut by 20 hours a week. He said she’d been treated in an “inhumane” manner, left to sleep in her wheelchair due to lack of care.

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée challenges the Liberals’ Philippe Couillard to defend his government’s record on home-care spending.(Radio-Canada)

“You are responsible for the degradation of home-care services,” Lisée said, addressing the Liberal leader. He said a PQ government would offer two times more home care than the other parties have proposed.

“You have never shown the least bit of compassion,” Lisee said, to which Couillard then responded: “Mr. Lisee, you don’t have a monopoly on compassion.”

Specialists’ raises decried

The other leaders also accused Couillard of failing to support nurses and other health care workers, instead favouring specialists with generous raises that have provided them with salaries higher than their colleagues in Ontario.

Massé said stressful work environments and strained workloads are forcing other health care professionals to leave their jobs, while Legault questioned why the Couillard government proceeded with specialists’ raises while the system was struggling.

The PQ leader, in turn, asked Legault why the CAQ is intent on increasing the salaries of Quebec’s health care workers to match those earned next door in Ontario but doesn’t apply that same principle to other workers, such as mechanics, bus drivers or welders.

“Why not them?” Lisée asked.

“Right now, nurses in Quebec earn less than in Ontario, while specialists earn more than in Ontario. That’s a problem.” Legault retorted. “What planet are you living on?”

“I live on a planet where there’s equity,” Lisée answered.

“We can compare all we want,” he went on, “but it’s not Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, who will decide how much we’re going to pay doctors in Quebec: it will be Quebecers [who decide].”

‘It’s time to improve peoples’ working conditions,’ Québec Solidaire Manon Massé said, vowing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by next May and accusing the other leaders of lacking vision.(Radio-Canada)

Education and daycare

The leaders made their pitch to Quebec families in the second section of the debate, which centred on education and the parties’ plans for free and subsidized daycare services.

Québec Solidaire has vowed to end public subsidies to private schools and plow that money back into public education; the PQ has pledged to cancel sliding-scale daycare costs and lower the cost of daycare for a first child to $8.05 daily; the Liberals want to offer free daycare to four-year-olds in subsidized daycare centres, and the CAQ said it would free up 50,000 spots in daycare by sending four-year-olds to prekindergarten in public schools.

“We don’t need four-year-old kindergarten because CPEs [early childhood education centres] have the mandate to educate our children,” said Massé.

Couillard said Legault was the only education minister to ever say it was a good thing to make cuts to the education budget, an accusation the CAQ leader said was unequivocally false.

“I never said that,” Legault said, pivoting to accuse the Liberal leader of making cuts to educational programs for children with learning difficulties such as autism and behavioral disorders.

“Cutting services to children who have learning difficulties, I never did that as minister, I would never do that as premier, and I will never forgive you [for it],” Legault said.

$15 minimum wage

Asked whether they supported raising Quebec’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, Couillard said he believed the target shouldn’t be on a number figure. Rather, he said, the Liberals would work to increase the average hourly wage by 50 per cent.

Going any further, he said, would put jobs at risk.

Lisée said the PQ would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour “as quickly as possible,” if elected Oct. 1, but the party wants to make sure there are no layoffs as a result of the increase.

Legault, for his part, said the focus should be on creating more better-paid jobs in the province, and the minimum wage must be raised incrementally.

The CAQ’s François Legault defended the values’ test his party plans to make mandatory for all newcomers, listing several countries in Europe that make immigrants pass a similar test.(Radio-Canada)

Massé rejected all those arguments outright.

“What world are you living in, Mr. Legault?” she said, throwing back at him the rhetorical question he asked earlier in the debate.

She said a Québec Solidaire government would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by May 2019 — a move she said would raise the living standard for one million Quebecers.

“It’s the right time to improve peoples’ working conditions, and raising the minimum wage is the base, especially for people to get their heads above water,” Massé said, accusing other the other three party leaders of shortsightedness.

“These men are wrong. They don’t have a vision. They don’t dream,” Massé said.

The environment

“A green vote is a vote for the PQ,” Lisée said, in response to a question from Pascale Poirier, a young woman from Sherbrooke who asked the leaders to commit to banning oil and shale gas exploration in Quebec.

He said a PQ government would not authorize any new hydrocarbon exploration projects.

Lisée said if Ottawa decided to impose the Energy East pipeline on Quebec, a PQ government would go to battle in the courts against the project.

Couillard said the proposed pipeline project is not acceptable to Quebec.

However, “we can’t just say no to pipelines,” he added. “We need to speed up the transition” away from hydrocarbons.

Massé said the move away from hydrocarbons needs to happen at all levels and needs to happen quickly. The best way to better protect the environment is for Quebec to gain its independence, she said, a nod to the party’s sovereignist roots.

‘You scare them, Mr. Legault’

Immigration, a hot-button issue throughout this election campaign, proved contentious again in the final half-hour of Thursday’s debate.

The leaders were asked how many newcomers they would bring to Quebec.

Lisée said the PQ wouldn’t put forward an exact number, but insisted no newcomers would leave the province under a PQ government. Couillard and Massé said they would keep the number steady, at around 50,000 immigrants annually, while Legault reiterated CAQ would lower that figure to 40,000 immigrants per year.

“We have an extraordinary country, with extraordinary resources, with very welcoming people. We need the means to integrate people,” said Massé, who said the focus should be on properly funding ways to integrate newcomers.

Legault defended one of his party’s most contentious promises: to subject all newcomers to a French-language test after three years in the province.

“We’re not talking about expelling citizens,” he said, attempting to clarify CAQ’s position. “We’re talking about expelling people who are not yet citizens.”

Legault also used the word “illegals” to describe some asylum seekers who have come into the country.

He asked Couillard to apologize for a Liberal party candidate who accused the CAQ of being a racist party.

“You tolerate people who say whatever they want about the CAQ,” he charged.

Couillard pushed back, asking his rival if he knows why some people feel that way about the party.

“You know why people react that way? Because you scare them, Mr. Legault,” Couillard said. “These families — these men, these women and these children that are listening to you — you scare them.”

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of Maison Radio-Canada in east-end Montreal early Thursday evening ahead of the first French-language leaders debate of the 2018 election campaign.(Navneet Pall/CBC)

Next up: Monday’s English debate

Thursday’s debate was hosted by Radio-Canada’s Patrice Roy.

This is the first of three leaders’ debates. There will be two more next week, including, for the first time, a televised English-language debate on Monday.

With files from Radio-Canada’s Sébastien Bovet


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