Quebec Election Campaign's Parade of Gaffes

There is no shortage of heady topics to debate in the run-up to QUEBEC's March 26 election - the province's economic woes, cultural insecurities, renewed federalism, the environment. Instead, halfway into the campaign, increasingly disgruntled voters have been treated to a vaudeville that has spiralled down into a trivial exercise in gotcha! politics, a campaign that has alternated between just plain weird and outright surreal - and has ended up embarrassing or offending many.

On the funny side of the street: Karine Delarosbil, the last-minute draftee for Mario Dumont's ACTION DÉMOCRATIQUE DU QUÉBEC party in Bonaventure, took off for a preplanned Florida vacation with her family a few days after the writ was dropped. The left-wing Québec solidaire fielded a team of two co-candidates in Charlesbourg - an apparent violation of election laws, but not a major issue since they're not expected to win. Referendum, meanwhile, has dropped out of the PQ lexicon. "Public consultation" is in.

Embarrassing: the Liberal candidate in the Outaouais who said healthy people don't really need a family doctor, so there's no shortage. ADQ candidate Éric Dorion told reporters he does not have a criminal record. Oops! Turns out the former substance-abuser, now clean, does have one. PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS Leader André Boisclair was caught off-guard when a blaring headline in the La Presse newspaper revealed that Robin Philpot - a rarity as an anglophone PQ candidate - wrote a book a few years ago assserting the massacre in Rwanda was not a genocide. And Pierre Paradis, a Liberal heavyweight candidate and a personal foe of Jean Charest, said the Liberals' record in health care is not as good as they pretend.

Those candidates survived embarrassing their leaders, or what ADQ candidate Jean-François Plante called the "modern-day Inquisition that hampers freedom of speech." Survive, Plante didn't. He was ousted after suggesting on an Internet radio show that Boisclair plays up his homosexuality in order to gain sympathy from voters. Another ADQ candidate, Christian Raymond, got the hook after urging Quebec women to have more babies, to stave off being swamped by more fertile immigrants. And though he's not running, Louis Champagne, the Saguenay radio jock, became very much part of the campaign when he said the PQ looks like "un club de tapettes" - a faggots' club. He was yanked off the air, only to be reinstated the next week. A station manager says his morning program rakes in half of the station's revenues.

It being Quebec, booby traps and pitfalls from the last referendum litter the campaign trail every time there's a provincial vote, touching off exchanges that bordered on the surreal last week. Liberal Premier Jean CHAREST told reporters Quebec is "not indivisible." He later repeated the same thing while explaining he meant the opposite - while brooding about not wanting to revisit "the black hole" of another referendum debate. Boisclair called Charest "an obsessional federalist," and Dumont concluded Charest is not fit to "defend Quebec's integrity." Boisclair said he foresees "no trouble, no turbulence" following a "yes" vote in a future referendum. Nobody laughed. Later, pundits speculated that Charest's faux pas was in fact a faux faux pas - a scheme to shake soft nationalists loose of Dumont's ADQ.

Heading into this week's debate, Charest was still enjoying a thin lead in the province's first three-way race in a long time. Dumont's meteoric rise in the polls, coupled with the fact that another 12 per cent of voters support fringe parties, reflect the fact that a near majority of voters are looking for an alternative to the PQ-or-Liberals choice that has defined Quebec politics since the mid-seventies.

All three leaders know full well that they will be history in a matter of months if they don't win or do very, very well on March 26. With Tuesday's critical leaders' debate, and the federal budget next week, things may well fall into focus. Now that Karine Delarosbil is back from her Florida vacation, the real campaign can start in earnest.

Maclean's March 26, 2007