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Technicians work on the set in preparation for the leaders' debate as part of the Quebec provincial election, Thursday, Wednesday, March 19, 2014 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Technicians work on the set in preparation for the leaders' debate as part of the Quebec provincial election, Thursday, Wednesday, March 19, 2014 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sovereignty, ethics likely hot topics in tonight’s Quebec leaders debate Add to ...

The Parti Québécois set the tone for Thursday night’s leaders’ debate with senior party members warning against the return to unethical practices should the Liberals form the next government.

While PQ Leader Pauline Marois prepared for the crucial debate trailing in public opinion polls, her senior cabinet ministers aroused concerns about Liberal slush funds and corruption, the main theme of the PQ’s successful 2012 campaign.

“Do voters really want to return to years of the Liberal party marked by problems of ethics, by problems of illegal campaign funds contributions and systematically refusing a public inquiry? I am certain Quebeckers don’t want to return to these dark years,” said PQ candidate and current justice minister Bertrand St-Arnaud.

As Mr. St-Arnaud listed the numerous allegations that plagued the party under former Liberal leader Jean Charest, he was quick to associate new leader Philippe Couillard to the “scandals” and unethical practices.

“Never did Philippe Couillard and the Liberal party apologize,” Mr. St-Arnaud said. “Never did we sense that Philippe Couillard was concerned about ethics.”

The PQ then warned that under a Liberal government the recommendations to be tabled by the Charbonneau Commission into corruption will only gather dust and never be enforced.

Ms. Marois will likely expand on this theme during Thursday night’s debate as the PQ frantically searches for a way to destabilize the Liberal frontrunner.

Meanwhile, Mr. Couillard appeared calm as he met with his senior advisers to prepare for his first leaders’ debate. He reiterated that if his opponents wanted to engage in a mudslinging match he was prepared to do the same.

“This isn’t what I want. This isn’t my way of doing politics,” he said Thursday morning.

During the debate, the Liberal leader suggested he will pursue the same strategy that allowed him to leap ahead of the PQ in the polls by questioning Ms. Marois’ intentions with respect to another referendum on sovereignty.

Mr. Couillard has warned that a PQ victory will lead to another referendum often exposing Ms. Marois’ contradictions on the issue.

Even though the PQ has made no firm commitment to hold another referendum in the next mandate or even less devise a clear strategy to explain their sovereignty option before holding a vote, the Liberals contend that Ms. Marois has a hidden agenda that will lead to another referendum.

Ms. Marois has promised to table a “white paper on the future of Quebec” that she insisted may or may not lead to another referendum. And several of her candidates – more notably media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau – said they entered the race to achieve political independence for Quebec.

This has given the Liberals the ballot question they needed to polarize the vote and focus attention away from the PQ proposal to adopt a secular charter that separates government and religion and proposes a ban on the wearing of certain religious symbols in the public sector.

The strategies deployed during tonight’s debate will largely centre on these themes midway into a campaign that has yet to deliver an insurmountable lead for any of the parties.

Quebeckers will vote on April 7 and will have a second opportunity to evaluate the party leaders when they meet next Thursday for a second televised debate using a one-on-one format rather than all four on the same set.

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