03/19/2013 04:08 EDT | Updated 05/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Musings about reopening Constitution stir a storm in Quebec

QUEBEC - Musings about reopening the Constitution from the new leader of Quebec's Liberal party provoked a flood of condemnation from his opponents Tuesday.

The Parti Quebecois government accused Philippe Couillard of improvising on an important file — a twist on an accusation the Liberals have frequently made since the PQ took power last September.

Couillard has not actually articulated constitutional positions yet. But Premier Pauline Marois isn't wasting any time criticizing the ones she suspects him of having.

She said his approach flies in the face of past Liberal leaders.

"It does not correspond to the tradition of the Liberal party," she said, wondering if Couillard would be willing to sign the Constitution without negotiating to get something in return.

"Mr. (Robert) Bourassa, whom some found soft, defended Quebec, reclaimed cultural sovereignty, as did premiers who followed. Same for Mr. (Jean) Charest, who would never have signed the Constitution as it is," said Marois, who was asked about Couillard at a news conference on another matter.

Couillard, who was picked Sunday to replace Charest, said he would like to see Quebec endorse the Constitution by 2017 but has not gone into specifics on how that would happen.

He said that's a debate that will first be held in his own party.

Still, the simple fact that he has expressed some enthusiasm for the issue has been enough to create a stir. His predecessor, Charest, steered clear of the topic whenever it was raised and successive federal governments have avoided it since 1992.

Marois said she doesn't see any advantage in reopening constitutional talks now and has no interest in doing so.

"I was a little surprised by his position," Marois said of Couillard.

"What is there to gain?"

She said any constitutional changes had better be put to a referendum, as happened with the ill-fated 1992 Charlottetown accord, and not adopted quickly by any future Liberal government as Couillard has suggested might be possible.

One PQ cabinet minister, Bernard Drainville, even said the new leader has "disqualified" himself from becoming premier if he thinks he can get the Constitution approved without setting conditions.

On Tuesday, Couillard acknowledged it's probably not a burning issue for most people. He still believes it's an important eventual goal.

"Nobody's going to lose sleep on this," he said Tuesday, as the Liberals held their first caucus meeting under his leadership.

"But as a value, as a symbol, as a sign for a country, the fact that one of the most important provinces in Canada is not there on this document, to me, is important."

Quebec was the lone holdout when nine other provinces, and the Trudeau federal government, created the 1982 Constitution.

Later attempts to revise the document resulted in spectacular failure and nearly split the country apart, in the early 1990s.

The most famous provision in the Meech Lake accord would have recognized Quebec as a "distinct society." and the ensuing controversy tore the old Progressive Conservative party to pieces — with the Reform party and Bloc Quebecois emerging in the aftermath.

Now the PQ wants to know what Couillard will demand as his bargaining position.

The PQ also wants a referendum before any constitutional deal.

"By saying it is not necessary to consult Quebecers before signing the Canadian Constitution, we believe Philippe Couillard has shown contempt for democracy," Drainville said.