QUEBEC - The Parti Quebecois government appears to be digging in its heels for an extended debate on its controversial religion plan, having brushed off invitations for a speedy compromise.
Statements from senior ministers Wednesday suggested the PQ has no intention of watering down the plan for quick passage in the current minority legislature.
One day after one minister expressed a willingness to "improve" the charter, the government made it clear the changes it envisioned would be minor and would not dilute its basic elements.
The third party in the legislature has offered to negotiate a deal on a bill but another minister, the one spearheading the proposed Charter of Values, said he'd rather hear from Quebecers first.
A government website promoting the charter has already received 10,000 comments and Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the plan, told reporters the debate could continue for many "weeks."
He welcomed the Coaltion party's offer — but expressed no inclination to accept it anytime soon.
"It's a debate that's too important," Drainville said Wednesday.
"We have to leave Quebecers the time. These are their values."
The push for a long debate is not without risks. For first time Wednesday, a poll placed the PQ values plan in negative-popularity territory, as more opposed than supported. It was the second consecutive survey to show declining support for the idea of banning religious headwear.
Since the plan appears stalled in the minority legislature, in its present form, the PQ has two obvious options: strip it down to pass it quickly, or preserve it for possible use later as an election promise.
The PQ showed little eagerness Wednesday to pass it quickly.
If the issue winds up becoming an election plank it would likely give the PQ two hot-button identity issues for its platform: the Marois government has already said it expects that its language law, Bill 14, will die on the order paper of the current legislature.
The PQ response came a day after Coalition Leader Francois Legault urged the government to accept a watered-down version of the charter and spare the province a "social crisis."
Drainville said it's premature to begin talks with the opposition parties while public debate is ongoing and the bill has not yet been tabled.
The PQ could sit down with opponents after the bill is tabled in the fall, Drainville said.
"Before putting the final touches on the bill, we have to take into consideration all these comments we'll receive and the debate that will take place," the minister said.
"So we're still talking about many weeks."
Even International Relations Minister Jean-Francois Lisee, who had made conciliatory noises the previous day, was sounding less pliable.
"It's time to have the guts to decide for real," Lisee said Wednesday.
One day earlier, Lisee had mentioned the possibility of improving the charter, but he clarified Wednesday that he was actually talking about toughening it — by possibly scaling back the proposed five-year exemption clauses for institutions that want to opt out.
Numerous institutions and municipalities, including the City of Montreal, have already declared plans to use the opt-out clause.
Lisee stressed that these exemptions should be temporary, calling it inconceivable that the province's biggest city could simply excuse itself from the plan.
Lisee also criticized the Coalition's proposed amendments. The legislature's third party, which holds the swing vote on the issue, wants the headwear ban only to apply to public workers in authority positions, like police and judges.
"It would shy away from the decision that needs to be taken," Lisee said of the Coalition proposal.
The PQ wants to forbid all public-sector employees from wearing visible religious symbols including hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and larger-than-average crucifixes.
A poll published in La Presse on Wednesday suggested the values plan would skyrocket in popularity if its most controversial provision, the one banning religious headwear, were removed from it.
The detailed poll on Quebec attitudes also listed four streams of thought on the subject: old-stock Catholics, concerned about the effect of immigration (29 per cent of respondents); tolerant believers, with a live-and-let-live approach to religious faith (29 per cent); closed secularists, who oppose religion in the public space (21 per cent); and open secularists, who aren't religious but aren't concerned about others' expressions of faith (21 per cent).
Those findings suggest an exact 50-50 split in Quebec, between people whose worldview supports a PQ-style approach and those who oppose it.
Overall, 42 per cent of respondents supported the PQ plan and 45 per cent opposed it.
That makes it the second survey this week recording a major drop in support for the idea, which the PQ first floated a year ago.
The survey also suggested that people who strongly opposed the plan were twice as numerous as people who strongly supported it.
The CROP survey of 1,000 people was conducted online from Sept. 12 to 15.
Also on HuffPost