Comments by Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois about how cabinet ministers should set good examples for the populace have irked the Coalition Avenir Québec's aspirant to the health ministry and touched off a cascade of comments on Twitter.

Asked Saturday whether a health minister should exemplify a healthy lifestyle, including a healthy body weight, Marois — who had just made a campaign announcement about a tax credit to encourage kids to take up sports — replied in the affirmative.

"I believe a health minister has a basic duty to set an example. Like, for me, the education minister has a duty to set an example by sending their children to public school."

That enraged CAQ candidate Gaétan Barrette, a physician and the party's presumed nominee for the health ministry, should it win next month's election. The heavy-set Barrette has admitted to having tried, but failed, to lose weight.

"Pauline Marois thinks appearances are more important than competency! Ouch! We ought to question the PQ's values," Barrette wrote on his Twitter feed.

"Marois has just insulted half the population of Quebec! Bravo!"

Marois clarified on Sunday that her comments weren't directed at Barrette. "What I said was that everyone should have healthy lifestyle. Am I going to respond that, as head of the government, I would think lifestyle isn't important? I used to smoke a long time ago. It's not easy to have a healthy lifestyle, but it's normal to hope that everyone would have one."

But Barrette isn't buying it. "Ms. Marois made those comments while accompanied by her health critic in my riding. I think Quebecers can understand what's being implied."

Charest and Twitter abuzz

Liberal Leader Jean Charest weighed in as well on Sunday, saying "the health minister is first of all judged by the politics they defend and the ideas they defend during the election campaign…. It's at that level that we want to be judged, and it's at that level that the debate should be had — not with personal attacks."

Adding fuel to the fire is that Marois made her comments at a campaign stop in the Montreal-area riding of Terrebonne, where Barrette is running.

On Twitter, people lined up on both sides, some calling Marois's comments despicable, others saying she was being misconstrued.

"Ms. Marois's comments on Dr. Barrette are shameful. She's not particularly thin herself," one person posted. "A weigh-in for candidates, maybe?"

Another tweeted that "the ridiculous media are trying to pump up the Barrette non-controversy."

A third commenter wrote, "People coming to Barrette's defence who have never themselves belittled Marois for her appearance are as rare as honest Liberal Party donors."

Health care on agenda

The PQ's tax-credit proposal would allow up to $500 in deductions for the cost of registering a child aged five to 16 for sports activities. Only families with a household income of less than $130,000 would be eligible for the measure, which the PQ estimates would cost the provincial treasury $25 million a year.

Marois continued on the theme of health on Sunday, elaborating on a series of reforms to primary care that she outlined the day before.

She pledged that a Parti Québécois government would ensure everyone in Quebec has a family doctor — a promise other parties have made as well. But she said the CAQ's plan to secure a physician for everyone within one year is unrealistic.

"It's not going to be done within a year. It will be done within four years."

Marois also said the PQ would push to have more general practitioners work in family-health teams alongside dietitians, nurse-practitioners, social workers and other health professionals. The idea, being implemented in several provinces, is that such teams can provide comprehensive care under one roof and spread the focus from treating illness to keeping people healthy and preventing disease.

"We'll help them digitize their offices, and we'll have them team up with specialists — nutritionists, physiotherapists — so that those people can take care of particular tasks while physicians can take care of patients' medical care."

Marois's only major announcement Sunday was that a PQ government would overhaul Bill 101, Quebec's French Language Charter. The measures — making Bill 101 applicable to companies with as few as 11 employees, forcing non-anglophone students to go to CEGEP in French, and closing a legal loophole that allows students who attend private English-language schools to qualify to attend English public schools — have all been announced previously in some form.

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  • Key Quebec Election Issues

    As Quebec begins a provincial election campaign, with a vote scheduled for Sept. 4, here are some key issues and the stated positions, so far, of the three largest parties: the Liberals, the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition for Quebec's Future.<br><br><em>With files from CP</em>

  • Student Strikes

    Liberals say their $254-a-year, seven-year tuition increases will improve universities while expanded loans and bursaries programs will actually leave the poorest students better off. Liberals have mostly refused to budge in face of protests, although their original proposal was for $325-a-year increases over five years. Their controversial Bill 78 would reopen classes in mid-August for one-third of students still on strike, while setting out severe fines for anyone blocking schools.<br><br>PQ has been more supportive of protesters and would cancel the hikes, propose smaller increases pegged to inflation and hold provincial summit on university funding.<br><br>The Coalition has positioned itself to occupy the middle ground, proposing more modest annual tuition increases of $200 a year over five years. Party originally voted for Bill 78 but now says it created unnecessary tension and wants some provisions suspended.

  • Ethics

    After two years of intense pressure, Charest Liberals called a corruption inquiry that is now probing malfeasance in construction industry and its ties to political parties and organized crime. Before that, they had announced plans to hire more oversight officials at Transport Department; tougher fines for engineering firms; stricter political fundraising laws; new rules for public-works tendering; and new anti-corruption squad that has since made numerous arrests.<br><br>PQ making ethics central plank of platform. It wants tougher legislation preventing companies guilty of tax evasion from winning public contracts. It also proposes new measures to combat voter cynicism including: citizen-initiated referendums, fixed election dates, political donations limited to $100 a year, and the right to vote at age 16.<br><br>The Coalition wants new integrity commissioner to oversee government contracts, and new powers for prosecutors, as part of a "big cleanup." It also promises fixed election dates.

  • Northern Development

    Liberals will tout Plan Nord, a sweeping plan that sets out $80 billion in public and private investments in mining, energy, infrastructure and conservation projects over a quarter-century.<br><br>PQ accuses Liberals of selling off Quebec's natural wealth at cut-rate prices and is calling for a 30 per cent surtax on profits from non-renewable resources.<br><br>The Coalition has also taken aim at the signature plan, alleging windfall will primarily benefit foreign companies and Quebec mining firms cosy with Liberals.

  • Sovereignty

    Liberals have long stood as the major federalist option in Quebec. Party is frequently accused by opponents of being subservient to Ottawa. However, it has clashed publicly with federal government over issues like long-gun registry, omnibus crime bill and changes to health transfers.<br><br>PQ is offering no timetable for third referendum on independence. Instead, party plans to pick fights with Ottawa in seeking more power over immigration, environment, agriculture and revenue collection. PQ hopes such battles will generate support for independence. Eventually, Quebecers themselves could initiate referendum, under plan to allow California-style plebiscites. People would need to collect 850,000 signatures to hold provincial vote on a given topic.<br><br>The Coalition, led by former PQ minister Francois Legault, vows to shelve any referendum on independence for 10 years to focus on building economy. But many federalists remain wary of the once-passionate sovereigntist.