It wasn't riveting drama, for the most part. But the Quebec leaders' debate on Tuesday was a refreshingly normal exercise in sketching out the serious political options facing that province's voters when they go to the polls March 26. The sheer maturity of the process made it noteworthy.
Premier Jean Charest and his two rivals sparred over real issues that matter to real people: leadership, credibility, the economy, health care, child care, education, the environment.
While some sparks flew, by Quebec standards they wasted little time in a heated, go-nowhere debate over sovereignty and the province's ties with the rest of Canada. That is something most Canadians can applaud.
The polls give Charest's Liberals only a fragile lead with 11 days to go and many voters still undecided. This is a tight three-way race that is impossible to call. But Quebecers who were tempted to deny Charest a second mandate may reconsider after seeing his rivals strut their stuff.
As premier and the evening's chief target, Charest struggled to fend off criticism that he failed to deliver promised tax cuts and to dramatically reduce health-care wait times, and now deserves to pay the price. "Have we been perfect?" Charest mused. "No." But Quebecers are not as heavily taxed as before, he noted. Parliament has recognized Quebec as a nation, sterile Canada-Quebec squabbling is a thing of the past, more Quebecers than ever hold jobs, the province's books are finally balanced, and the government is reinvesting in education and health.
Charest also landed stinging hits of his own. He called Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont a "confused" figure who heads "a party without a team" and who offers nothing but "improvisation" by way of a program. He also dismissed rookie Parti Quebecois Leader Andre Boisclair with a shrug: "Do we want to replay the same old referendum film again?" Most Quebecers agree that the answer is "Merci, non."
On performance, Charest came across as the most premier-like, projecting a calm mastery of policy, and keeping his temper under wraps.
Dumont gave the flashier show, telling Charest "you don't deserve a second chance," and launching an aggressive attack on Charest for failing to deal with a structurally weak bridge in Laval that collapsed last year. But Dumont showed himself to be a policy lightweight. His proposal to declare Quebec an "autonomous state" is a weird halfway house between Charest's profitable federalism and Boisclair's independence. Dumont could not answer a basic question on Quebec's budgetary elbow room, dodged demands that he cost out his programs and was mauled for his enthusiasm for private health care, user fees and delisting drugs.
Boisclair did better than many pundits predicted, urging Charest to "stop blaming others" and posing sharp, focused questions. However, his overall performance was the weakest. He was ridiculed by both rivals for "living a dream" when he promised, without much apparent enthusiasm, to hold yet another referendum.
Although many Quebecers went into this election dissatisfied with Charest's stewardship, the alternatives on display in Tuesday's debate were not wildly attractive. Dumont looked shallow and unready to govern. And Boisclair continued to peddle unwanted goods.
In that sense, the debate was healthy and instructive. As Charest said at one point, "there are no magic solutions." All Quebecers can do now is choose the best of what is on offer.