MONTREAL - Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard says he will make it plain during a leaders debate this week that Quebecers are facing two stark choices on April 7 — a party obsessed with sovereignty and another focused on governing.
Couillard hammered away at the Parti Quebecois for its pro-sovereigntist stance Monday, while continuing to backtrack on his comments last week that he would initiate constitutional negotiations with English Canada if he became premier.
The Liberal leader now says such talks are not foremost in the minds of Quebecers and that he would get involved only if others initiated the debate.
"It's not an issue that is a top priority for Quebecers...Now if other parts of the country want to open constitutional talks on areas of interest such as the Senate or whatever other subjects come on the carpet, I will participate in those discussions to the extent that Quebec's demands will also be on the agenda," he said.
That position has changed considerably since Couillard became Liberal leader, exactly one year ago Monday.
At the time, he was hopeful of having a constitutional deal by 2017 — Canada's 150th birthday.
Just last week, he said he was ready to go across the country to press federal, provincial and territorial officials and that he'd try to ensure the recognition of Quebec's distinctiveness in any constitutional talks.
On Monday, Couillard said he'd wait for someone else to trigger the debate.
"Right now I'm not hearing anyone in Canada advocating a reopening of constitutional talks," he said. "Obviously, it's not going to happen, at least in the near future. If, if, other parts of the country want to have those talks, then we'll talk about what we'll do about that."
Couillard said while the constitutional debate is hypothetical, a sovereignty referendum under a Pauline Marois-led Parti Quebecois government is not.
"The only thing she is interested in is to have a referendum on the separation of Quebec," Couillard said. "That is her ultimate objective"
Earlier on Monday, Coalition Leader Francois Legault stated he would vote no in a sovereignty referendum but stopped short of calling himself as a "federalist."
"I am a nationalist," said the former PQ cabinet minister.
Marois focused on health matters Monday, with her PQ insisting it is hopeful of keeping a 2012 promise to have every Quebecer have a family doctor by 2016.
"The things we've done are a step in the right direction and gradually everybody will have access to a family doctor, files will be computerized and people will be able to get an appointment in a reasonable length of time," she said."
Couillard, Legault, Marois and Francoise David of Quebec solidaire will hold their first televised debate this Thursday night, with a second scheduled for a week later.