Quebec’s Marois Seeks to Temper Imminent Referendum Talk

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois sought to turn around her faltering re-election campaign by using a leaders debate yesterday to temper concerns that a victory for her party would lead to an imminent referendum.

Marois, head of the separatist Parti Quebecois, said in her opening and closing statements her focus will be on creating jobs and passing her “charter of values” that would limit displays of religious symbols in the public service.

“There won’t be a referendum as long as Quebeckers aren’t ready,” Marois said in French, a phrase she repeated throughout the debate, adding that her plan is to hold consultations on the future of Quebec. “We will not do it in hiding.”

Marois is trying to cool talk of independence, which dominated the first week of her campaign, as polls suggest her party is losing support of voters concerned that she would seek a referendum during her next mandate.

It’s a concern that Philippe Couillard, leader of the main opposition Liberals, tried to exploit.

“Do you want to elect the Parti Quebecois that will hold another referendum, or the Liberal Party of Quebec that will be occupied with the economy, jobs and health?” Couillard said.

Recent polls have shown the federalist Liberals moving ahead of the Parti Quebecois in support. A poll released March 19 by Ipsos Reid for CTV News showed the Liberals with the support of 37 percent of Quebeckers, compared with 32 percent for the Parti Quebecois. Only 18 percent of Quebeckers supported the idea of the Parti Quebecois holding a referendum in the next mandate, compared with 64 percent who say they shouldn’t. Ipsos Reid said the survey of 810 voters in the Internet poll is “accurate to within plus or minus 4 percentage points had all adults in Quebec been polled.

Spreads Narrow

A poll by the company CROP for La Presse newspaper, published March 18, had the Liberals with 39 percent support and the Parti Quebecois with 36 percent.

The extra yield demanded by investors to hold 10-year bonds from Quebec rather than Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has narrowed over the past week to about 16 basis points, from about 19 basis points a week ago.

The Parti Quebecois began the campaign with polls suggesting the separatist party had enough support to form its first majority government in more than a decade. Quebec has held two plebiscites on splitting from Canada -- in 1980 and 1995 -- under previous Parti Quebecois majority governments.

Rising Support

The Parti Quebecois returned to power in 2012 elections with a minority in the legislature, ending nine years of rule by the Liberals. Support for Marois had risen in the weeks leading up to the election call amid growing popularity for her charter of values.

The charter, which is most popular in the largely French-speaking regions outside of Montreal, has allowed Marois to put identity politics at the forefront of her party’s push for sovereignty.

Support for the Liberals jumped since the start of the campaign as Marois sketched out elements of what an independent Quebec might look like during campaign stops. The entry of Pierre-Karl Peladeau into the race as a candidate for the Parti Quebecois also focused attention on separation as the media executive, who spent 14 years as head of Montreal-based Quebecor Inc., said March 9 he wants Quebec to become independent.

Sell Shares

Opposition leaders have called on 52-year-old Peladeau to sell his shares in the company, which owns the province’s largest circulation newspaper and its most watched television network, a concern that may also be shared by a majority of the electorate. The Ipsos Reid poll found that 54 percent of Quebeckers disagreed with the idea that his entry into the campaign is a good thing, with 46 percent agreeing.

Couillard brought up the matter yesterday, calling on Marois to force Peladeau to sell his stake in Quebecor.

‘‘It’s unacceptable,” Couillard said in the debate.

Marois sought to turn the debate toward her values charter, which Couillard has criticized as being excessive. Marois closed the debate saying, “We will respect our values, we will adopt a charter of secularism.”

Jobs Message

Marois sought to reinforce her message of jobs and identity at a press conference today near Montreal with Peladeau and Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the values charter, claiming the election is about those two issues, not separation.

The Parti Quebecois also took out full-page ads in newspapers saying it needs a majority government to pass legislation.

“The issues are clear: a Quebec that wants to advance toward employment, toward clear rules in terms of living together,” Marois told reporters in a televised press conference.

Peladeau, who was courted by Marois to add some economic heft to her campaign, said today his primary reason for entering politics was to help develop the province’s economy.

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