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PQ’s push for spring election gambles on secular charter

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois speaks to reporters in Montreal on Jan. 14, 2014.

GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Premier Pauline Marois is preparing for an early spring election campaign that would have Quebeckers going to the polls in April.

The date of the election has not yet been etched in stone but speculation is mounting as the Parti Québécois minority government this week tries to build momentum – with 23 announcements on Monday alone – and gauge public opinion to determine its chances if an election were called next month.

The PQ is gambling that the controversy over its proposed secular charter, which would ban public-sector workers from wearing overt religious symbols, has sufficiently polarized voters to allow Ms. Marois to make gains at the expense of the Coalition Avenir Québec in her bid to form a majority government.

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CAQ Leader François Legault responded by showing he was election-ready on Monday with an attack on Ms. Marois's integrity. The CAQ Leader alleged that revelations last week at the Charbonneau Commission into corruption showed that the PQ was within the grip of the Quebec Federation of Labour union.

Mr. Legault questioned why the QFL Solidarity Fund invested in 2009 in a money-losing business venture involving Ms. Marois's husband, Claude Blanchet. Allegations at the commission suggest it was part of an attempt to gain political influence over the PQ when Ms. Marois was opposition leader.

"I heard plenty of Quebeckers who are fed up with these backroom deals," Mr. Legault said. "Ms. Marois has to stop hiding [on this matter] … Ms. Marois is more concerned about calling an election on the secular issue … than giving answers regarding these backroom deals."

On Monday, the PQ minority government launched its first pre-election offensive with more than a dozen cabinet ministers participating in 23 announcements. Several local projects that included school renovations, job-creation initiatives as well as tourism and agriculture investments were unveiled, adding up to several millions of dollars.

A total of 85 government activities, mainly in central Quebec regions, were being planned for this week alone. The PQ caucus will gather on Wednesday for a two-day meeting in Shawinigan, near Trois-Rivières, where the likelihood of an election will be on the minds of caucus members who have been told to get ready for a campaign.

When the National Assembly resumes sitting next week, it will be marked by the first appearance of Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard as opposition leader. Mr. Couillard won a by-election in December.

The PQ intends to pounce on Mr. Couillard's wavering position on the secular charter bill. Mr. Couillard came to the defence of religious freedoms and strongly objected the proposed ban. However, after defending the need for a secular government, Mr. Couillard was accused of favouring the province's Catholic heritage over other religions when he argued for keeping the crucifix on display in the National Assembly.

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Mr. Couillard's flip-flop on the issue of the hijab and other Muslim religious symbols cost him the support of Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only elected Muslim woman in the National Assembly. She was ousted from the Liberal caucus for refusing to support her leader's position.

By calling an early election, the PQ hopes to exploit the divisions within the Liberal ranks and appeal to francophone voters upset with Mr. Couillard's handling of the issue.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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