QUEBEC — Like players sitting before a giant chessboard representing Quebec, they made their first moves.
But instead of wowing the crowd with their jousting, the first encounter resembled more of a quick dance around the floor with nobody leading.
Perhaps it was because of the media hype, but it was a nervous Jean-François Lisée who rose to clash for the first time with Premier Philippe Couillard in daily question period Tuesday at the National Assembly.
Not only was his two-tier tongue-twister question about regional development confusing, he ran out of time to finish it before the microphone was cut off.
That’s because it included a long preamble in which Lisée said he wanted to be statesmanlike and avoid the kind of bombastic attacks Couillard indulged in attacking him after he became Parti Québécois leader two weeks ago.
Lisée said he would not say, as Couillard did of him, that the premier is “bad for humanity,” or connected to extremists.
Quick on his feet, Couillard turned the remarks around to say the fact that Lisée, over the last few days, has watered down his identity politics talk is a sign there was “an element of truth in my remarks.”
So went Lisée’s first day in the big chair. It will not go down in history, but there’s always Wednesday’s question period and so on, all the way to the 2018 general election.
Tuesday, however, is the first time Quebecers got a glimpse of the three leaders who will be working the hustings in that campaign.
Lisée got in a few barbs. Waving a devastating report by the province’s auditor general who said in September that the Liberal austerity agenda has hurt Quebec, Lisée asked: “Will the premier feel responsible for something some day?”
And later, he offered to buy Couillard a beer if he matched the job creation record of former PQ leader Bernard Landry, which was 123,000 jobs in one year. The Liberals claim to have created 128,000 jobs in the two and a half years they have been in power.
“Do I look like someone who is scared,” Couillard quipped as he left question period later.
“I didn’t see a knockout punch,” Liberal house leader Jean-Marc Fournier added.
Lisée’s approach was telling in one way. After columnists reminded him most voters are more concerned about jobs and the economy than his musings about immigrants hiding AK-47s under burkas, he shifted his focus.
On Tuesday, Lisée started talking more about bread-and-butter issues, saying for the first time if he becomes premier his priority will be improving services to Quebecers rather than tax cuts.
“As long as the auditor general tells us there are people in wheelchairs who sleep in their chairs because of budget reductions, making further cuts in order to trot out pre-electoral candy is out of the question,” Lisée said.
But Couillard and Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault have already started to try to brand Lisée in the eyes of voters before he has the chance to do it himself.
Legault devoted a whole news conference on Tuesday to Lisée, tagging him as yet another “tax and spend” péquiste who has a lot of big expensive ideas Quebec can’t afford.
Legault had to counterattack. A new CROP poll for La Presse published Tuesday shows the CAQ is losing some of its francophone nationalist base to the PQ — probably because of Lisée’s ‘no referendum’ mantra.
Legault said he’s not worried. He enjoyed the same kind of honeymoon with voters when he founded the CAQ.
“Sooner or later, reality catches up to you,” Legault told reporters. “After the honeymoon people will come back to reality.”
He nevertheless hauled out an old CAQ promise to cut taxes by $500 a year for all Quebecers, a measure that targets the same francophone demographic fleeing to the PQ.
The Liberal spin was in full gear, too, with officials saying they are surprised Lisée’s arrival at the head of the PQ has not created a bigger bump in the polls for the party. The CROP poll pegs support for the Liberals at 37 per cent, the same score as a month earlier.
The PQ under Lisée has gone up three percentage points to 30 per cent support while the CAQ is down four percentage points to 22.
The level of satisfaction in the government is 40 per cent, Liberals noted, arguing with numbers like this they can still win a majority in 2018.
For good measure, Couillard — in answering a Legault question — hinted that a tax cut is in the works before the election given Quebec’s $2-billion surplus. The Liberals have in the past said a priority cut is the health services surtax.
The Liberals, however, say Lisée remains a fan of wedge politics and they expect he will return to the identity theme to get votes just as he did in the leadership race.
“He (Lisée) wants to divide those who believe in independence from those who don’t,” Couillard said in the legislature. “He wants to divide immigrants from those who have arrived a long time ago. He wants to divide the people of Montreal from those in the regions.”