Thursday's leaders debate proves beyond any doubt that the issue of another referendum on sovereignty is the ballot question Quebec voters must decide in the April 7 vote, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard says.
Appearing on television morning shows on Friday, Mr. Couillard hammered away at the Parti Québécois' referendum question, calling it a real threat as part of a strategy that has successfully propelled him into the position of front-runner in the campaign.
"The question you will need to answer is the following: Do you want a government that will devote a good part of its energy to prepare a referendum or do you want a government that will deal with the real issues such as the economy, jobs, education and health. The choice has never been so clear," Mr. Couillard said in one of four TV appearances.
With public opinion polls showing that the vast majority of Quebeckers don't want to vote anytime soon in another referendum on sovereignty, the Liberal Leader has kept the PQ on defensive and positioned himself as the steward of the Quebec economy and jobs.
It explains why at every turn he repeatedly brings up the referendum threat. He insisted that he has no choice to discuss it since it was PQ Leader Pauline Marois who made it a central theme of the campaign. That happened when her new star recruit, billionaire media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, raised his fist in the air and said he wanted a country putting the referendum issue front and centre of the campaign, Mr. Couillard said.
"We didn't put it on the table…Ms. Marois wants to table a white paper and hold hearings on the future of Quebec. We don't want another referendum," the Liberal leader argued.
But when asked about his constitutional position and whether he would eventually adhere to the 1982 Constitution which Quebec has refused to sign, Mr. Couillard remained vague and uncommitted.
"We don't even know if there will be constitutional negotiations," Mr. Couillard said. "What is certain is that Quebec will not debate Senate reform without addressing our interests as well."
The Liberals are hoping that Thursday's debate will begin to consolidate support among those who reject the possibility of another referendum. Mr. Couillard's strategy was to impose it as the ballot question that will polarize voters and allow his party to maintain its lead in the poll for the remainder of the campaign.
In fact, the Liberals have taken a page from the PQ campaign book when Ms. Marois attempted to impose the secular charter – known as the Charter of Quebec Values – as the ballot question of the election.
The secular charter would prohibit public servants from wearing overt religious symbols, a proposal which Mr. Couillard argued violated fundamental religious freedoms but which was supported by a majority of Quebeckers.
Ms. Marois has been so far been unsuccessful in steering support for the secular charter into votes for the PQ. The issue has been overshadowed by the threat of another referendum on sovereignty giving the Liberal a huge advantage in the campaign.
The two issues will likely come to a head next Thursday during another televised debate where under a different format the four leaders will have one-on-one confrontation. The final debate could either help the Liberals consolidate their lead or give Ms. Marois a new lease on life in a campaign that appeared to be slipping from under feet.
Rhéal Séguin is The Globe's Quebec City reporter.