In a campaign during which Pauline Marois would prefer to focus on issues such as jobs, the economy and Quebec's cultural identity, the Parti Québécois Leader is compelled to explain her hesitation about holding another referendum on sovereignty.
Ms. Marois insisted she was not going to be rushed into holding another referendum if her party formed a majority government in the April 7 vote. But she added that she will launch public hearings on Quebec's political future to gauge whether there is a desire for another referendum.
"We want to keep the agenda open," Ms. Marois said when asked by reporters about her referendum strategy. "If a referendum is needed, we will take the time to stop and listen to people's opinions. And if we find that it is not relevant to do it, we won't."
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard accused the PQ of having a hidden agenda that would eventually scare away investors and harm the economy.
On Thursday, Mr. Couillard introduced three star economists who will run for the Liberals, but he also pushed hard on the referendum issue, saying Quebeckers "have to stop being naive about this."
"When investors decide to invest or not to invest in Quebec, political stability is a very important factor," he said.
Mr. Couillard, who has had some some trouble attracting high-profile candidates, was clearly pleased with the additions to his economic team. Economist Carlos Leitao, Martin Coiteux, an economist with the Bank of Canada, and Jacques Daoust, the former long-time head of Investissement Québec, the government's venture-capital investment arm, each spoke of his deep concern about trends in the Quebec economy after 18 months of PQ government. "A morose climate has been established, and private investment has stopped growing," Mr. Coiteux said. Mr. Leitao described Quebec's situation as "very weak and precarious" compared with the rest of Canada and the United States.
Ms. Marois refused to make a firm commitment to hold a referendum on sovereignty if she wins a majority government. But she quickly added she will weigh her options "at the opportune time" after holding public hearings. She refused to say at what point during a PQ mandate she would conduct the hearings.
"We aren't going to do anything behind closed doors; we aren't going to do it in the dark. We will need a consensus. … There is no commitment to hold a referendum but there is also no commitment not to hold one," the PQ Leader said.
In Ottawa, the Prime Minister's Office argued that Quebeckers don't want to relive past constitutional battles. The Conservative federal government wants to avoid intervening in the provincial election, but says it "aspires to work with a government that believes in a strong Quebec in a united Canada."
Both the PQ and Liberals are seeking to attract the more conservative nationalist votes that went to the Coalition Avenir Québec party in the 2012 election. "Those who don't want a referendum can support our program," Ms. Marois said. Yet her "open agenda" strategy was also meant to keep alive the hopes of those who want political independence now.
"It is time that we give ourselves the means to achieve independence," said Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet. "We will hold the referendum when Quebeckers will express the need to have their country."
Ms. Ouellet and other PQ ministers, such as Pierre Duchesne and Bernard Drainville, have urged Ms. Marois to express openness toward another referendum. But the PQ Leader has indicated this was as far as she will go, for fear it could give opponents arguments that could ultimately derail her campaign.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa