OTTAWA – The federal government tried to refrain Wednesday from commenting on the Quebec election and what a possible majority Parti Québécois government could mean for national unity, while the NDP pledged it will stay neutral in the race.
"I don't have any comment to make about the Quebec election, obviously," Industry Minister James Moore told reporters after emerging from his party's morning caucus meeting.
Moore would not inject himself in the election or answer questions about whether he was worried about a referendum.
"I'm a federalist. I believe in national unity… but I'll let the campaign in Quebec stir up these debates," he said.
"This is a decision for Quebecers, and I would encourage everyone to not frankly put too much weight into opinion polls," Moore added. He noted that, at the beginning of the election in British Columbia last spring, every pollster had the province's NDP winning a smashing, massive majority government. The NDP lost.
Quebec premier and Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois announced Wednesday that her province will go to the polls on April 7. Public opinion surveys suggest voters will give the PQ a majority government.
Marois did not take questions from reporters and in a short speech made no mention of sovereignty or the possibility of another referendum. She has said, however, that she will consult with Quebecers before holding a third referendum.
Government sources, insisting on anonymity, said Ottawa will stay out of the provincial race to avoid giving the PQ any ammunition during the election.
York University political scientist Bruce Hicks told The Huffington Post Canada that federal politicians always run the risk of being accused of interfering in Quebec's internal politics.
"If that accusation is levelled and it has traction with the voters, trying to help out your provincial counterparts can actually backfire on you," he said.
The PQ likes to run against Ottawa, Hicks added, noting that in the last election Marois tried to lure Prime Minister Stephen Harper into a fight on several issues. The Tories didn't bite.
"When you have an Ottawa vs. Quebec fight, voters are more willing to have a separatist government in power, because they think that they will stick up for Quebec's interest more passionately than anyone else," Hicks said.
Most Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs refrained from commenting Wednesday.
Heritage Minister Shelly Glover said she wants a united Canada but does not think it is a message the federal government needs to push during the provincial election.
"It's not our election campaign, it's theirs," she said.
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre said he respects Quebecers and that "elections in Quebec are always the choice of Quebecers."
Rather than being preoccupied with a referendum, the federal government is squarely focused on economic growth and job creation, Western Economic Development Minister Michelle Rempel said.
International Cooperation Minister Christian Paradis told reporters however, that Ottawa would be following the campaign closely.
He was hoping for a new federalist government that was focused on the economy, he said.
"A majority PQ government is far from being my dream scenario," he said.
Popular Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, the minister for small business and tourism, said Ottawa would leave the campaign in the hands of Quebecers. "But if there are ever questions related to federalism, it is absolutely certain that we will intervene," he said.
"I do not think that it is the priority of Quebecers to have another constitutional debate."
The election will offer a "clear choice" between a party that supports separation and other federalist parties, Bernier said, referring to the Quebec Liberal Party and the Coalition Avenir Québec.
"I'm a federalist. I hope that it's a federalist party that wins the next provincial election."
Thomas Mulcair won't back federalist parties
The NDP leader, however, declined to make the same categorical statement. Thomas Mulcair told reporters that he believes the possibility of another referendum will be raised during the election campaign and he worries about it — but he is not prepared to insert himself in the race.
"I'm going to do everything I can so we don't have a third referendum in Quebec," he said.
If there were a third referendum, Mulcair said, he would make the case for Canada. But for now, he will stay silent.
"I have the intention of staying neutral, I will not support any political party during the campaign — because I'm waiting for the day until there is a NDP party in Quebec," Mulcair said.
Quebecers will decide the government they want and the NDP, its MPs, and its staff understand it is best to stay on the sidelines, he said.
Mulcair noted that during the Alberta election Harper did not back the province's Progressive Conservative party or the Wildrose party. The Quebec election is the same thing, Mulcair suggested.
It is in Quebec's interest to stay in a G7 country such as Canada, Mulcair said, but he also felt that Ottawa should stop turning its back on the province's traditional demands, such as compensation for programs under its provincial jurisdiction.
"I don't think a third referendum is a good thing for anybody. And having been through the first two, I can tell you that they are very divisive, right down to the family unit, and it’s not something that I would wish upon my friends, and family and neighbours in Quebec again."
The federal Liberals are backing their provincial cousins in the race. Quebec Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia told HuffPost he feels the provincial Liberals are the only real federalist alternative in the election.
"It's pretty clear where we stand. Of course we want a federal alternative in Quebec. We want a federal alternative that focuses on the economy. Mr. Mulcair will have to answer for his own comments," Scarpaleggia said.
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