In Quebec, a two-party race

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National Post, Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the first day of the Quebec election campaign, La Presse ran a story that the Parti Quebecois was $800,000 in debt. Going into a campaign where the dominant question will be which party voters trust to lead them through a global financial crisis, the timing couldn't have been worse for PQ leader Pauline Marois.

On the second day of the campaign, La Presse had an even more embarrassing headline: "Marois seen as a snob." The newspaper's Quebec correspondent, Denis Lessard, had somehow obtained the PQ's focus group research on their leader. "She is seen as a snob," the news report read. "A politician without a sense of repartee, incapable of putting her message in capsule form for the electronic media. Voters find her far from their problems."

This has less to do with Marois's person than her property. She's polite, and well liked on all sides. But she and her husband built a huge house on suburban Ile Bizard in the style of a French chateau. When the story of Chateau Marois broke last year, news organizations hired helicopters to fly over it.

On the third day of the campaign, Marois did a couple of editorial boards, where she had to deny she was a snob. "I am who I am," she said.

On the fourth day of the campaign, a fist fight broke out at a PQ nominating convention in suburban L'Assomption, where Marois imposed former Green party leader Scott McKay over Jean-Claude St-Andre, a former member of the National Assembly who espouses a hard line on Quebec independence.

"The two sides exchanged insults before coming to blows on two occasions," La Presse reported. "No one was hurt but police cars were immediately dispatched to the scene."

On the fifth day of the campaign, Quebec's largest union, the Federation des Travailleurs du Quebec, announced that it was withholding its traditional support of the PQ and wouldn't be endorsing any party in the campaign. This was the equivalent of the Canadian Labour Congress refusing to endorse the NDP.

On the sixth day of the campaign, Action democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont had to explain how a YouTube musical video of Marois as a snob found its way onto the ADQ Web site. "I'm a simple woman," Marois sings, "I wash my own floors." The offensive video was withdrawn, but only after it had become the story of the day.

For Marois, the only good thing that can be said about the start of her campaign is that Dumont's week was even worse. Dumont proposed to privatize 7.5% of Hydro-Quebec, which he suggested would net $10-billion. If that were true, the provincially-owned utility would be worth $125-billion, at least twice Hydro's asset value. Then, in the face of the coming economic storm, Dumont pledged to cut spending $1-billion. Liberal Premier Jean Charest scoffed that Dumont's program would turn a storm into an "economic tsunami."

Then, trying to get some traction on the identity issue that drove his campaign on "reasonable accommodation" of minorities last year, Dumont denounced Quebec's replacement of religious instruction with an ethics and religious culture course as a "negation of Quebec's identity." But there were no buyers.

In other words, both of Quebec's opposition parties have had bad weeks. But there's a difference: The PQ brand is resilient, and PQ supporters won't be put off by a few bad headlines. For Charest's opponents, Marois is the only alternative in what is fast shaping up as a two-party race.

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