OTTAWA - Federal politicians say they're keeping their noses out of the Quebec election campaign, but have a wary eye trained on the sovereignty movement.
Parti Quebecois Premier Pauline Marois dissolved her 18-month-old minority government Wednesday and called a provincial election for April 7.
Hanging over the campaign is Marois' promise to produce a white paper on independence if re-elected. Similar consultations took place before previous referendums on Quebec sovereignty in 1980 and 1995.
The three federalist parties in Ottawa are taking careful note, but aren't prepared to get involved in the campaign — as any federal involvement could backfire in a province hyper-sensitive to Ottawa's meddling in its affairs.
"I'm always going to respect the electoral process in the provinces," said Denis Lebel, the Conservative government's Quebec lieutenant. "I haven't gotten mixed up in elections in the past.
"If there are errors made (about the Conservative government) during the campaign, I will make it my duty to correct the record."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair echoed the non-interference sentiment, while referring to Marois as a "redoubtable political figure." Both the NDP and the Parti Quebecois are left-of-centre parties in Quebec, and Mulcair and Marois draw from some of the same pools of voters.
"Again, Quebecers will make their choice, it's not my intention to get involved in the day-to-day of that campaign," he said.
But Mulcair, who was once a Liberal cabinet minister in the province, is using the Quebec election call to engage in his own campaign-style talk.
Mulcair said his party is the only one that is creating "winning conditions" for Canada within Quebec, which he calls the legacy of late party leader Jack Layton.
"I think we've got a lot to gain by staying in a G7 country like Canada, with everything we have," he said.
"But there are things to improve and change because there are traditional demands of Quebec that we must stop turning our backs on," he added, referring to the province's desire to spend certain federal funds the way it wants.
"There's a reason the Conservatives don't have any support in Quebec. It's because they don't understand anything."
Lebel's office responded by pointing out that the federal government and Quebec reached a tentative agreement on a job-training program just this week — Quebec was allowed to opt out but still receive the funding.
Cue the Liberals who also tried to score some federal political points, criticizing Mulcair for not saying he preferred that a federalist party win the election.
"We've been clear: Our cousins in the Liberal party (of Quebec) offer Quebecers the best options in terms of the real socio-economic issues. ... But of course we're going to let the provincial election unfold," said Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc.