Prime Minister Stephen Harper has predicted that the Parti Quebecois' controversial values charter will fail because of opposition within Quebec.
The prime minister made his first remarks since the Quebec government released a plan last week that would bar people with religious headwear from working in the public service.
Harper was asked during a news conference Monday about the controversial proposal, following the release of a poll on the subject.
"I do not see the charter in its current form going anywhere," Harper told the B.C. news conference.
"I think the common sense of Quebecers will force this towards a reasonable conclusion as the debate progresses."
Despite the PQ's repeated efforts to turn the debate into a Quebec-versus-Canada squabble, including numerous complaints from the PQ about media coverage in English Canada, Harper noted that the support is also less than stellar within Quebec.
Harper pointed out that none of the three other parties in the Quebec legislature supports the PQ plan in its current form.
He was speaking after the release of a poll Monday that suggested a perfect split in Quebec public opinion — although the response specifically from francophones was 49 per cent support for the PQ plan, 34 per cent opposed, and 17 per cent refusing to answer.
That finding suggests a notable shift from similar polls before the plan was formally introduced, when a crushing majority had expressed support for a charter like the one the PQ proposed.
"What we're seeing overall is a pretty significant drop in support — a 14-point drop in overall support for the project," said Sebastien Dallaire, vice-president public affairs for Leger.
"The (public) reactions were highly emotional and often negative, if not very negative," said Dallaire. "So it's not surprising to have seen Quebecers recoil."
The Leger poll of 2,000 does point to one area of the province where the charter is especially popular: the northern and southern belt around Montreal.
Nearly one-quarter of the province's 125 seats are in that so-called 450 belt. The PQ is nine seats shy of a majority government and, in that region alone, the party was narrowly defeated in over a half-dozen ridings by the Liberals and CAQ last year.
"It's mainly around Montreal that there is an opportunity for the PQ to make some electoral gains but it depends how this issue evolves over the next few weeks," Dallaire said.
"There is so much emotion involved that we can expect that this is not the end of it. The numbers will probably shift again."
Harper offered another reason why the plan might backfire on the PQ: because Quebec voters care more about other issues, like the economy and job-creation, than identity politics. That point has been reflected in different surveys that place the issue low on the priority list.
The federal government has promised to intervene legally if it determines that the charter violates fundamental rights — but, in Harper's assessment, it might not get that far.
The plan has yet to be tabled in the legislature. If rejected by the opposition parties, as appears likely, the PQ will be left with two options to move it forward: water the plan down or use it in the next election campaign.
Some federal politicians, including Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, have already predicted that the plan would eventually be rejected by Quebecers.
Harper offered a similar forecast Monday.
"If the Pequiste government decides to proceed I see, already, that public opinion is starting to shift," Harper said.
"In my opinion the real priorities for Quebecers, like other Canadians, are issues like the economy, job-creation, and protecting our children against crime."
Within Quebec, the charter has faced noisy opposition from public figures.
In addition to a weekend protest, and numerous editorial cartoons and opinion columns, the charter was also mocked at a weekend gala with Premier Pauline Marois in attendance.
In one of the shots against the charter, a presenter at a television-awards ceremony expressed hope that Quebecers could keep their dignity while respecting others' views.
Those remarks drew hearty applause while the poker-faced premier clapped gently, in an image broadcast on TV.
The Leger Marketing poll, considered accurate to within 2.2 percentage points 19 times out of 20, was conducted for the Journal de Montreal on Friday and Saturday.
It suggests the PQ plan holds a 10-point popularity advantage in the ring outside Montreal — but running neck-and-neck in most other parts of the province and even 11 percentage points behind in the Quebec City area, where there are about 14 seats.
Marois declined to comment on public opinion Monday.
"I don't have any comments about the reaction of the street — (the debate is) happening very peacefully and that's what's important," Marois told a news conference in Trois-Rivieres.
"I think Quebecers are altogether capable of having this debate, sharing their opinions, so we can eventually make decisions on these issues."
In mid-afternoon, the Parti Quebecois made a cryptic announcement. The party said it would have more to say on the charter later Monday evening.
The announcement turned out to be an interactive quiz that drew parallels between current criticisms of the charter to the complaints in 1977 about the PQ's now-landmark French language law.
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