At 11:30 a.m. on March 9, Leader Pauline Marois introduced a candidate who was among the big catches in Quebec political history. Pierre Karl Péladeau was compared to other famous recruits – such as Lucien Bouchard and Pierre Trudeau – who turned Quebec politics upside down. A business titan and celebrity, Mr. Péladeau’s arrival rattled PQ opponents. He added economic credibility to the PQ team, which was already running with a majority government in sight. Mr. Péladeau provided gravitas to the sovereignty movement, triggering instant analysis that a referendum campaign would likely lie ahead.
Within 48 hours, Mr. Péladeau seemed to do more harm than good for the PQ. Progressives in the sovereignty movement shifted nervously and unions blasted away at the party, their traditional ally. A poll showed that Quebeckers who dislike the man are about equal in number to his admirers.
Far from rallying Quebeckers to the PQ, he polarized voters. He didn’t even help the party in Quebec City, where his push brought a hockey arena and still might bring an NHL hockey team. The PQ started trailing the Liberals within a week of PKP’s arrival. Most important, his fist-raised cry that he wants a country, reinforced a day later when he said he only got into politics for independence – opened the door wide open for one of the battle-tested tactics of Liberal campaigns: the warning that a vote for the PQ was a vote for a referendum and turmoil. He also exposed deep division within the PQ, where for 20 years leaders have tried to play down referendum talk while many activists and candidates have wanted nothing else.
The PQ has had some success turning the spotlight on Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard on two fronts: his rather mercenary work history and his wholehearted defence of bilingualism, which is highly unusual for a Liberal leader.
Mr. Couillard’s onetime business ties to Arthur Porter, accused of fraud, and his past stint working in Saudi Arabia, along with the $600,000 in earnings he kept in a bank account in the Isle of Jersey, have added to critics’ assertions that Mr. Couillard is not in it to serve the public. There is no evidence Mr. Couillard did anything wrong, so there may be little left to attack on those fronts, but he has failed to put the issues to rest conclusively.
Ms. Marois will almost certainly spend the next week attacking Mr. Couillard on identity issues. She will remind Quebeckers of the PQ’s charter of values to restrict religious dress in the public service and put a lid on demands for religious accommodation, a wedge issue she has used to advantage for much of the past year but which may be past its maximum use for attracting new voters.
Mr. Couillard’s persistent and unabashed defence of bilingualism may be more fertile ground. One of the paradoxes of French-speaking Quebec is that most people want their children to be bilingual, but they see official, institutional bilingualism as a threat to the French language. Mr. Couillard spoke during Thursday night’s debate about the importance of speaking English on factory floors, harkening back to bad old days 50 years ago when it was often impossible for working-class francophones to work in French.
Ms. Marois is certain to remind Quebeckers of that humiliating past as Mr. Couillard stands up for English instruction as no Liberal leader has in memory.