MONTREAL - Referendum? What referendum?
That seemed to be the message Friday from the Parti Quebecois as it tried to steer its struggling election campaign away from the rocky road to sovereignty onto a smoother path.
Even star candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau, whose fist-pumping declaration that he joined the PQ to create a country for his children, made a point of changing his tune during a news conference with Leader Pauline Marois.
"If I chose to get involved in politics, it was to create more prosperity and more jobs," said Peladeau, the majority shareholder of media giant Quebecor.
"If I decided to join Madame Marois, it is because she has an audacious economic vision."
For her part, Marois repeated her contention from Thursday evening's debate that there will be no referendum until Quebecers are ready.
"It's not a priority for Quebecers at the moment and it's not my priority either," she said in Montreal-area Longueuil. "Our priority is to reinforce Quebec, reinforce it in all areas, reinforce the economy and adopt a charter."
She was referring to the PQ's controversial secularism charter which would forbid public-sector employees from wearing religious garb such as hijabs and kippas on the job.
It was deemed priority No. 1 at a PQ national council meeting on March 8, three days after Marois called the April 7 election.
Secularism legislation — and the exploitation of identity politics in general — proved helpful to the PQ in winning a minority government in the 2012 election.
When the PQ announced its platform this time, the popular yet divisive charter was ahead of toughening language laws on its list of numerous election goals.
That all changed, however, when Peladeau's bombshell campaign entry made it appear as though the ballot-box issue had actually become whether a vote for Marois' team was a thumbs-up for a third sovereignty referendum.
The uproar over Peladeau's jump into politics prompted even Marois to muse about what a sovereign Quebec would look like.
But the PQ leader began to soft-pedal plans for independence amid opinion polls suggesting a shift in momentum to the Liberals.
Some analysts dismissed Marois's party as desperate when charter point man Bernard Drainville warned at the campaign's halfway mark this week that only a majority PQ government could save the charter.
The party insisted it had always planned to make its charter pitch at that stage of the campaign.
The combination of Drainville's promotion of the charter alongside Peladeau's reflections on the economy Friday came across as a bid at a one-two punch to reframe the issues after Marois was grilled on referendum plans in the debate.
The Liberals have tried to paint themselves as the best stewards of the economy, although Peladeau scoffed at their credentials.
"If I had directed Quebecor as the Liberals led Quebec, I would have lost my business and I would have been replaced," he said.
It seems Peladeau wasn't always as disparaging of the Liberals as he had to explain Friday why, according to donation records, he contributed more money to the federalist party during the last decade than he did to the PQ.
He also donated to the now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec.
Peladeau was asked why he gave to the Liberals, a party he now calls unethical.
"I always believe in democracy," he replied. "I think this is the strongest thing for this country, and political parties are a part of this democracy so it was no problem for me to donate to all parties in Quebec."
The media mogul said he has long supported the PQ and voted Yes in the 1980 sovereignty referendum. He did not say how he voted in the 1995 referendum.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard described the PQ campaign as "organized confusion."
Pointing to comments by several PQ candidates, Couillard said in Quebec City the party can't get its story straight when it comes to a referendum.
"We're involved in organized confusion to try and hide the referendum plan," he said, citing what he saw as conflicting comments by Marois and Peladeau as well as candidates Jean-Francois Lisee and Linda Goupil, a former justice minister who says she doesnt want a referendum.
"I put all the statements together," Couillard said.
"Madame Marois in the debate is unable to say if there is a referendum, Mr. Lisee said yesterday (Thursday) there might not be one in the first year but maybe in the year after.
"Ms. Goupil says she wouldn't be in politics if there was going to be a referendum but Mr. Peladeau says he wouldn't have entered politics unless there was going to be a referendum. It's total confusion."
Marois refuted her rival's comments as she tried in vain to steer questions away from the referendum at a news conference.
"There is no confusion," she said. "The issue of this election is not a referendum. The issue of this election is the choice of a government to lead Quebec.
"We will not push Quebecers to take this decision. We will take the time. And when it is time, we will propose something if we are ready and Quebecers are ready."
That was a replay of her remarks after Thursday night's debate, when she also left the door open to a plebiscite in the next four years if the PQ wins a majority government and she deems the winning conditions are in place.
In other election news, Coalition Leader Francois Legault drew the ire of unions after he told a gathering of the union of Quebec municipalities that cities and towns should be able to decree settlements if negotiations to resolve deficits in employee pension funds aren't settled after a year of negotiations.
Also, a few hundred protesters demonstrating to mark the United Nations International Day For the Elimination of Racial Discrimination chanted against the secularism charter as they marched through Montreal streets Friday evening. They stopped briefly outside Marois' downtown Montreal office before dispersing.
— With files from Canadian Press reporters Alexandre Robillard and Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City and Julien Arsenault in Longueuil
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