The Quebec election campaign's second and final debate Thursday saw the four candidates seeking to become the province's next premier attacking François Legault for not doing enough for the climate, health care and the French language.
With voting day less than two weeks away and Legault holding a commanding lead in the polls, Thursday's event was one of the last chances for the parties to get their messages out to voters.
Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, the Quebec Liberal Party's Dominique Anglade, Québec Solidaire's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon and Éric Duhaime from the Conservative Party of Quebec also argued over inflation, taxes, education and questions of identity like immigration and sovereignty.
The debate kicked off with candidates taking turns targeting Legault and his environmental record.
Legault's party has been criticized for not doing enough to tackle climate change during its first mandate but during the debate, he touted his team's ability to build a green economy.
"The fight against climate change is not in you," said Anglade.
Nadeau-Dubois, who had several direct exchanges with Legault, accused the outgoing premier of spreading fear about Québec Solidaire's strategy for the environment, instead of proposing a viable plan.
"You can put away the Halloween decorations. We have to stop scaring people. You should be inspiring Quebecers, proposing solutions," said the Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson.
"You're discouraging people, Mr. Legault."
Legault in turn accused Nadeau-Dubois of proposing an unrealistic environmental plan that would hamper the province's economy. Throughout the campaign, Legault has described Québec Solidaire's proposal to impose a 15 per cent tax on heavily polluting cars as an "orange tax," in reference to the party's colours.
"It's a bit like magic," Legault said. "It's a bit like we're in Wonderland."
Quebec aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37.5 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, but the province missed its 20 per cent reduction target set for 2020 and instead reached just six per cent.
If elected, Québec Solidaire is aiming for a 55 per cent reduction compared to 1990 levels within eight years. The Liberal Party of Quebec is proposing a 45 per cent reduction target over that same period. Duhaime's Conservatives have opted to not set an emissions target, saying they prefer to prioritize "realistic" goals since previous governments all fell short of their objectives.
Immigration, the French language, sovereignty
St-Pierre Plamondon, the leader of the PQ, said keeping the annual number of new immigrants in Quebec at 50,000 — instead of reducing it to 35,000 as his party proposes — will make the French language more vulnerable.
"Your planning is leading to the sharpest decline of French in the history of Quebec," St-Pierre Plamondon said, staring directly at the outgoing premier.
St-Pierre Plamondon also pounced on Legault when it came to the issue of Quebec sovereignty. Near the end of the debate, the moderator asked the CAQ leader if he would vote yes in a referendum.
Legault wouldn't say how he would vote but did say "Listen, we don't want a referendum." He described sovereignty as a "legitimate" project but not a priority for most Quebecers.
St-Pierre Plamondon accused him of trying to put an end to the sovereignty movement and said he can't be trusted by Quebecers who want the province to become a country.
"There are voters who trusted you in 2018 because they wanted to replace the Liberals and they're sovereignists," St-Pierre Plamondon said. "I am calling on those people and I'm saying you can now vote by following your beliefs. And what François Legault is trying to do is extinguish a movement."
WATCH | Legault and St-Pierre Plamondon clash over sovereignty:
Families waiting for daycare spots
Legault boasted about his government's decision to expand pre-kindergarten but his opponents jumped at the chance to blame him for the long waiting list for public daycares.
As a result of that backlog, women in Quebec have taken a step backward, Anglade said.
"There are women today who cannot re-enter the job market because they don't have daycare services," she said. "They want do it, but they're not able to do it."
Both the Liberals and the PQ have promised a subsidized daycare spot for all children if elected.
Privatizing health care
The CAQ leader also defended his government's management of the health-care system, saying he inherited a broken system from the previous Liberal government and the pandemic only made things worse.
Both the CAQ and the Quebec Conservatives have unveiled plans to expand private care in order to reduce the burden of a reeling public system.
Nadeau-Dubois said it was a matter of fixing the current system, not privatizing it. He said too many health-care workers have left the public sector in recent years.
"If socialism worked when it came to health, we would know it," Duhaime replied. "The reality is we need competition [between the private and public sectors]... Whether it's public or private, a monopoly does not work."
Anglade reiterated her party's commitment to get every Quebecer a family doctor, even though about 1.2 million people in the province are currently without one.
"We have the responsibility to find a way," she said.
The debate took place at La Nouvelle Maison de Radio-Canada in downtown Montreal with Radio-Canada's Patrice Roy moderating.
All five party leaders are scheduled to appear live Sunday night on Tout le monde en parle,' a popular talk show on Radio-Canada.
The election will take place on Oct. 3. Quebecers can also cast their ballots in advance polls this Sunday and Monday between 9:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.