The Parti Québécois is promising if it wins a majority government it will hold public hearings across the province on the political future of Quebec in hopes they will generate popular support for holding a third referendum on sovereignty.
"We will have a consultation on a white paper on the future of Quebec. I am a sovereigntist. And should the people elect me and my government I will have the possibility to [achieve] sovereignty," Premier Pauline Marois said during a news conference marking the end of a two-day caucus meeting.
Ms. Marois is ratcheting up the rhetoric over Quebec sovereignty in a bid to boost national fervour, yet another indication that an election is imminent.
The initiative may be all show and little substance: Ms. Marois refused to commit to holding a referendum should she form a majority government. As with her predecessors, Bernard Landry and Lucien Bouchard, her refusal to commit to a clear referendum strategy has created skepticism among sovereigntists. Ms. Marois even added that the public consultation on the white paper should not be viewed as a "black paper" against Canada.
"This is not a process toward sovereignty," she insisted. "We will examine all the options."
Despite apparent contradictions in Ms. Marois's position – she says she wants to increase support for sovereignty while inviting Quebeckers to express their support for a united Canada – cabinet ministers were enthusiastic about her proposal to hold public consultations across the province.
"The white paper will allow us to draft a plan for a country and how we can collectively draw the country we want and why we should do it," said Minister of Higher Education Pierre Duchesne.
At no time since winning the election in September, 2012, has the minority PQ prepared for another referendum, creating discontent within the sovereignty movement. Some PQ caucus members, such as Léo Bureau-Blouin, acknowledge that the white-paper proposal may at least give hope to disgruntled sovereigntists at a time when support for sovereignty has fallen below 40 per cent. Others want it to rally the troops in time for a coming election.
There is growing speculation that Ms. Marois will call an election next month for a vote likely to be held on April 14.
PQ insiders say that public opinion polls show Ms. Marois has the edge she needs to achieve majority status. The sooner she can call an election the better, they argue, even if it means going to the polls before presenting a budget.
"It is possible to go into an election without tabling a budget," Ms. Marois acknowledged, even though her government hasn't presented a budget since November, 2012. "We know what the facts are regarding our economic situation. We won't learn much from tabling a budget."
Besides, she added, the opposition parties have already said they would likely vote against a PQ budget and defeat the government.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard accused the PQ of using sovereignty as a scheme to avoid tackling the province's economic problems. He said the idea of public consultations on the future of Quebec was aimed at breaking up the country and that it was nothing more than a clever attempt at dividing Quebeckers and shifting attention away from day-to-day concerns.
"White paper, red herring. It's another way to shift people's attention away from the true reality, the reality of Quebec, which is a very weak economy, public finances that are very badly managed, " Mr. Couillard said Thursday.