The 33-day campaign until Quebec election day on April 7 kicked off last week. Here are the top surprises so far. 

1. The “I have my own brand of nationalism” unscripted statement in response to a journalist’s question by Liberal leader Philippe Couillard at his party campaign launch. By reaching out to grab the Quebec flag, the still undefined candidate showed he was not about to leave nationalism to the Parti QuĂ©béçois (PQ), the Coalition Avenir QuĂ©bec (CAQ), QuĂ©bec solidaire (QS), or the tiny Option nationale.

Couillard announced that he detested (nothing personal) the approach of the PQ government, which he characterized as: if it wasn’t the fault of the federal government, it was the fault of the other provinces; if it wasn’t the fault of the provinces, it was the fault of foreigners; and if it wasn’t the fault of foreigners, it was the fault of Quebecers who didn’t think like the PQ.

He, Philippe Couillard, and his Liberal opposition, had heard enough talk from the PQ about poor, miserable, vulnerable, Quebec. With a strong identity and 400 years of Francophone history, Quebec had plenty of resources, and a prosperous future to look forward to once it rid itself of the PQ.

Couillard has only been leader since March 17, 2013, and did not have a seat in the legislature until December 9, 2013. A neurosurgeon and professor, he has had difficulty making up his mind, or communicating with people, let alone inspiring his tired, worn-out party. The most noted aspect of his leadership to date is his multiple flip-flops around the Quebec Charter.

Health minister under former premier Jean Charest in 2008, Couillard jumped to the for-profit medical sector, raising questions about his position on privatization of health care, which for critics was well in hand, thanks to winks and nods between the Quebec Liberal government he was so much a part of, and Stephen Harper in Ottawa.

2. Though her ruling party had crafted a comfortable lead among Francophone voters — thanks to promoting Quebec identity through the proposed Quebec Charter — once she decided to force an election, Premier Pauline Marois ran into trouble.

Just prior to the election call, Gilles Duceppe, her one-time rival for the PQ leadership and former Bloc QuĂ©béçois chief, confided to a province-wide audience that Marois precipitated an election so that she and her husband Claude Blanchard could avoid testifying before the Charbonneau Commission investigating corruption in the Quebec construction industry. 

The commission wants to ask Blanchard about an investment the Fonds de SolidaritĂ©  (the Quebec Federation of Labour investment arm he once headed) made in a company Blanchard controls, and what its links were to his wife.

The night before the election call, a report by Radio-Canada journalist Guy Gendron questioned why Marois was ignoring her own government legislation calling for a fixed election date. A defeat on a vote of confidence in the National Assembly would have triggered an election, but she had not brought her budget forward for a vote.

The CAQ, the third party, was not hankering for an election showdown, and could well have propped up the government. The Liberal opposition were manifestly not ready for an election. Signs pointed to political opportunism as sparking the election call: a classic case of an unnecessary election, making the PQ an easy target for the opposition.

3. On day one of the campaign, things got worse for the PQ, then continued to get worse as the week went on. At her opening event, Premier Marois decided not to take questions from reporters following her speech. Disappearing from media range was described as borrowing from Stephen Harper, bad news since the PQ plan to attack him, not be compared to him.

Day two brought a report of job losses for the most recent month, and the response by the premier — job numbers go up, then go down, not to worry — was judged insensitive.

On day three, a major announcement of 10 women candidates got upstaged by the revelation that long-time PQ activist, twice minister, Marie Malavoy had been bumped from her riding (to make way for one of the 10) because at age 65 she was too old (Marois turns 65 on March 29).

Three of the 10 new candidates had a North-African background, just what the PQ needed to show critics its charter was not anti Muslim women, except the announcement got lost in the story about a mature woman leader throwing another mature woman under the bus the day before International Women’s Day.

4. Ending almost a week of campaigning, the surprise was that the PQ needed the announcement on Sunday of media oligarch Pierre Karl PĂ©ladeau (a.k.a. PKP) as a Parti QuĂ©béçois candidate to retake the lost campaign initiative. PKP, a billionaire businessman and owner of communications giant Quebecor, inherited an empire from his father. Mentored by Brian Mulroney, the long-serving Quebecor Board Chair, PKP established a reputation as a ruthless businessman, who specialized in locking out his employees. 

PĂ©ladeau declared he was running as a sovereignist to ensure the future of his children in an independent Quebec. Besides exciting the Anglo-Canadian media into reporting another referendum campaign was underway, the PKP run for office raises a serious question about how someone who owns so much media (blind trust or not, he holds 75 per cent of Quebecor) could possibly be kept from directing his empire for political and personal gain, move over Silvio Berlusconi.

5. Expecting the Péladeau candidacy to boost the party to a big win April 7 is to forget about the roots of the party founded by René Lévesque. Péladeau companies have locked out journalists 14 times, Lévesque got his political education leading a Radio-Canada journalist strike.

While Marois focuses on taking support from the business-first CAQ party which wants talk of sovereignty shelved, the very progressive QS salivates at the opportunity for growing its support through labour defections from the PQ camp.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Paul VanDerWerf/flickr