MONTREAL - Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois is refusing to rule out an independence referendum in the first mandate of a majority government.
The PQ leader had her stock answer even before being repeatedly asked during a televised leaders' debate Thursday whether there will be a sovereignty referendum if the PQ is re-elected April 7.
"You know that Mr. (Liberal Leader Philippe) Couillard, in order to have people forget the Liberal years, would have you believe that this election is being fought on the issue of another referendum," she said in her opening statement.
"False. There will be no referendum as long as Quebecers are not ready."
But in her news conference following the debate, Marois was asked if a referendum is possible in the next mandate if she deems Quebecers are ready.
"It's clear," she answered. "The election is about choosing a government. When Quebecers are ready, we will consult them."
In a follow-up question, she was asked whether Quebecers could be ready in a first majority mandate.
"It's an evaluation that will be made after exchanges that we might have had together."
The referendum issue is a delicate one for Marois.
Polls repeatedly suggest that a majority of Quebecers do not want another vote on the province's political future.
But, just like many previous PQ leaders who couldn't be seen to be alienating hardline sovereigntists in the party, Marois can't afford to categorically say there won't be one.
Marois reiterated that a PQ government would launch an extensive consultation period with Quebecers before making any decision to send them to the ballot box to vote on creating a country.
The Liberals and the PQ are locked in a virtual tie, according to most polls, and Couillard's basic strategy in the debate was clear: cast the PQ as a party that fosters political uncertainty at the expense of economic prosperity.
"The choice is clear," he said. "Do you want to elect the Parti Quebecois, which will prepare another referendum, or a Liberal government that will attend to the economy, jobs, education and health?
"With the PQ, Quebec lost 66,800 full-time jobs in 2013 and what is Madame Marois doing? She's building a team with another referendum in mind."
Another topic that surfaced in the debate, which also featured the Coalition's Francois Legault and Francoise David of Quebec solidaire, was the PQ's plan to introduce a controversial charter of values.
Marois made it clear a PQ majority government would push ahead with the legislation, which would prevent public-sector employees from wearing religious clothing and symbols on the job.
The PQ leader got off one of the best lines of the night when Couillard asked her how many women would lose their jobs because of the charter.
"Mr. Couillard, there's only one single woman I've seen lose her job in Quebec — and that's Fatima Houda-Pepin because you expelled her from caucus."
Couillard recently dumped Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim woman in the legislature, after she opposed the Liberals' position on the charter.
Although the charter has divided Quebecers, Marois is hoping it will attract support from many small-c conservatives who can help the PQ win ridings currently held by the Coalition.
Legault, whose party is struggling in opinion polls, said his government would do "great things" for Quebec, reduce taxes for the middle class and manage public funds in a more responsible manner.
"Quebec needs to start over, move forward," said Legault, who has admitted he is fighting the battle of his life. "I refuse to give up. I am convinced that we can do great things.
"The Parti Quebecois and the Liberals, since the beginning of the campaign, have talked about a referendum. In my opinion, they are disconnected from your reality."
Francoise David, whose leftist Quebec solidaire has two seats in the 125-member assembly, spoke about the importance of more equality in the province.
"For the past 40 years, two parties (the Liberals and the PQ) have formed the government. Isn't it time to look elsewhere? Isn't it time to choose Quebec solidaire?"
The sharpest exchanges of the night came between the front-running Marois and Couillard.
One surfaced when Couillard attacked Marois for not forcing media magnate Pierre Karl Peladeau to sell his Quebecor shares now that he is a PQ candidate.
Couillard stressed that Peladeau's decision to put his assets in a blind trust is insufficient given the control he exercises over much of Quebec's media.
"Freedom of the press is not a normal business," Couillard said. "I think you should have displayed more authority and more judgment and told Mr. Peladeau to divest himself of all his shares before entering politics."
That raised Marois's hackles.
"As for judgment, let's not go there," Marois fired back, with Couillard immediately interjecting: "I've got no lessons to take from you on that score."
But Marois wasn't finished.
"I think you could be more careful in your comments," she said. "The last few days have not seen you at your most honourable."
Marois was referring, in particular, to Couillard's comment on Wednesday that the PQ leader would be "in for it" if she resorted to personal attacks during the debate.
The leaders discussed four topics: the economy; social issues such as education; public finances and integrity; and identity and the national question.
The debate was considered key because a large segment of the electorate was expected to tune in ahead of the election.
Although Marois had initially said she would participate in only one debate, she and the other leaders will face off again next week on TVA, the Peladeau-owned television network.