Allison Hanes: Coderre, Plante debate duelling visions for Montreal

Allison Hanes: Coderre, Plante debate duelling visions for Montreal
Allison Hanes: Coderre, Plante debate duelling visions for Montreal

There were no knockout punches, no personal attacks, no dirty tricks.

The first debate of the 2017 mayoral campaign — organized by the Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain — was just two people duking it out over their competing visions for Montreal. 

Boring? Maybe to cynics who prefer the theatre of politics even while complaining that politicians never delve into real issues. But this bout between incumbent Denis Coderre and Valérie Plante, the leader of Projet Montréal, was as it should be: a clean fight over who is the best person with the best plan to run a city where things are actually going pretty well.

This kind of contest may seem like a novelty in the era of fake news and nasty insults. However this remarkably constructive campaign is a sign of the times in this city.

Montreal is having a moment. Unemployment is lower here than in Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton. There is massive investment in infrastructure underway. Montreal is vying with other North American cities to attract Amazon’s new headquarters. There’s also talk about bringing a Major League Baseball team back.

It’s a sea change from four years ago when the main issue on voters’ minds was cleaning up the city from the corruption mess that left its reputation in tatters. Or from the elections of the previous decade before that, when the dust was settling from Montreal being put together and taken apart again.

The big question of the night was posed by Michel Leblanc, President of the Chambre: how do we keep the momentum going?

And there, Montrealers tuning in saw two very different options.

Coderre cast himself as a mayor who gets things done. He’s banking on his record in improving Montreal’s standing on the international stage and clinching more power for the city from the province to convince voters to let him continue what he started.

Plante wants to be the first female mayor of Montreal. She wants to make the city more livable and green. She wants to keep families from decamping for the suburbs.

He wants to bring back baseball to Montreal. She wants a referendum on how much public money should go into building a new stadium for such a return.

He wants more harmonization and centralization of city services, like snow-clearing. She wants to empower boroughs to make decisions and bring services closer to citizens.

Her signature promise is the Pink Line of the Montreal métro, which would run diagonally from roughly from Lachine to Montreal North. He says it’s too expensive, not realistic and not needed given other planned transit projects, like the extension of the Blue Line and the Réseau électrique métropolitain piloted by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

They both saluted the courage of victims coming forward with allegations of sexual impropriety against well-known Quebec personalities. They both questioned how the city would be able to apply the Quebec Liberal’s new state neutrality bill, which will prevent Muslim women in full face veils from riding city buses or getting library cards.

If the two candidates differ on substance, they also showed contrasting styles.

Denis Coderre takes a selfie with the crowd at the beginning of Thursday night’s debate. (Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette)

Coderre held aloft to his phone to take a selfie with the audience in the background just as the debate was getting underway, garnering a few laughs.

Plante’s infectious laugh echoed through the room frequently, a demonstration of her cheerfulness and unflappability when challenged.

With just over two weeks left before voting day on Nov. 5, the election is getting down to brass tacks. This was the only French-language debate, but the Montreal Gazette will be among those hosting a rematch on Monday.

Thursday’s debate steered clear of many of the more politically charged controversies that have made headlines, like the amount of spending surrounding the city’s 375th birthday and how many people actually paid to attend the ePrix electric car race that closed streets in eastern downtown this summer. These topics remain important as they go to the transparency of city operations.

But if this was supposed to be about the mayoral contenders presenting big ideas, challenging the merits of each other’s policy proposals — and laying out where they want to take Montreal in the future — then it fulfilled its mission.

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