Quebec election: Legault forced to defend COVID-19 rules in conservative riding

·4 min read

QUEBEC — Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault found himself on the defensive Tuesday, forced to justify his government's strict COVID-19 rules during a visit to a riding contested by the upstart Conservative Party of Quebec.

Beauce-Sud, south of Quebec City and bordering the United States, is located in a part of the province known for its conservative politics, entrepreneurial spirit — and particular disdain for Legault's pandemic restrictions. The Conservatives were not a factor in the 2018 election, but under leader Éric Duhaime they have risen sharply in the polls since he started attacking the CAQ for its management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legault told reporters on Day 3 of the election campaign that he imposed strict COVID-19 rules — including a months-long curfew — to save lives, adding that most Quebecers appreciate how difficult it was to make decisions during that time.

"I took the measures that I thought best represented the common good," he said. "It’s not easy making this kind of decision — I didn’t make it for pleasure; I did it to save lives."

He said Quebecers were "extremely united" in the fight against COVID-19 and showed high rates of compliance with measures — including by having one of the highest first-dose vaccination rates in the world.

Legault repeatedly declined to expressly name his Conservative counterpart; instead, the CAQ leader accused certain party leaders of wanting to bring anti-government discontent into the legislature.

"When you’re a leader — a party leader — you have a certain responsibility," he said. "You can’t profit from a crisis like this to try to win votes with positions that are irresponsible."

The CAQ won the Beauce-Sud riding in 2018 but polls suggest it has become a toss-up between Legault's party and the Conservatives, who are seriously contesting a number of ridings in the region.

Later on Tuesday, Duhaime shot back at Legault's accusation of "irresponsible" people.

"What I find particularly irresponsible is that for the past several months, we have a premier who has profoundly divided Quebec."

The premier, Duhaime said, divided the province with vaccine passports by creating two classes of people: the vaccinated and unvaccinated. The Conservative leader said Legault has also tried to split the province's anglophones and francophones — a reference to Bill 96, the CAQ's new language law, which caps enrolment for francophones in English-language junior colleges.

"And for him to have the nerve to talk of irresponsibility — if he wants to talk about irresponsible people we should buy him a mirror," Duhaime said.

Legault was also hit by Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade on Tuesday, who accused the premier of copying her, after the two parties made similar announcements two days in a row. Both parties on Tuesday announced measures they said would give up to $2,000 a year to people over the age of 70 — a proposal that the Liberals first made last year.

One day earlier, both parties also promised personal income tax cuts. Anglade took credit for Legault's tax-cut pledge because the Liberals had previously announced they would cut income taxes. "François Legault is a copier, and plagiarism is a reason for dismissal," Anglade told a Quebec City news conference.

Anglade said seniors making under $50,000 a year would benefit from the maximum amount with her "seniors' allowance" plan, which she costed at $2 billion.

Legault, meanwhile, announced his own $1.6-billion plan to give low- and medium-income seniors a payment of up to $2,000 per year through refundable tax credits. He denied the two proposals were nearly identical and suggested it was not unusual to have promises on similar themes. "Each party looks at the needs, the concerns, the problems and we try to propose solutions," he said.

Québec solidaire, meanwhile, proposed suspending sales tax on certain essential items — including all food products — until inflation recedes to about three per cent. The Liberals promised on Monday to cut the sales tax on some basic necessities, but Québec solidaire's plan would go further and apply to such things as clothing, personal hygiene products, and repair services for items such as cars, bicycles, computers and household appliances.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon was in Montreal for a news conference, where he promised $21 billion — or $3 billion per year — for environmental initiatives that include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over 2010 levels by 2030.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2022.

— By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal.

The Canadian Press