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For months, Quebec has been torn by a vicious debate over a charter that would deprive some citizens of their basic rights. Yet the man who should be at the forefront defending liberal values is nowhere to be seen.

Philippe Couillard, leader of the Quebec Liberal Party – a party whose raison d'être is respect for individual rights – has stayed mum on the issue. Mr. Couillard, who has no seat in the National Assembly, has been away from the spotlight during much of the debate over the Charter of Quebec Values – allegedly because he is touring the regions at the grassroots level, but presumably as a pretext to avoid the politically toxic topic.

On Sept. 5, the QLP published a sensible position paper on identity, and shortly afterward, Mr. Couillard said that "over my dead body" would the government implement the coercive elements of the charter – specifically, the ban on religious symbols in the public sector. But since then, he has dismissed all questions about the issue, which he calls a "distraction." He says he would prefer to focus on the economy.

In purely electoral terms, it's easy to understand his reluctance to dive into the charter debate, for this is, unfortunately, a popular project among old-stock francophones.

Indeed, a CROP poll published Tuesday shows the Parti Québécois gaining strength. Despite a very high level of voter dissatisfaction (61 per cent), the PQ is now just four points behind the Liberals, and largely ahead among francophones, who are the key voters in most ridings. As for who would be best premier, PQ incumbent Pauline Marois has gained three points in a month, while Mr. Couillard fell from 27 to 22 per cent.

Considering the poor state of the economy, the only reason for the rise of the PQ's fortune would appear to be the charter project, which plays off widespread unease about immigration and targets religious Muslim women in particular.

The poll results increase the odds that Ms. Marois will call an election for December, shortly after the municipal elections scheduled for Nov. 3. This raises the distressing prospect that the campaign will be fought on the backs of minorities, including vulnerable immigrant women.

Numbers are important in politics, but there is still such a thing as basic principle. It's disconcerting to see that the leader of a party whose fundamental values include protection of individual rights absent from a debate that's been raging for weeks.

Meanwhile, it's open season against women in Muslim headwear. Janette Bertrand, a media personality and an icon of Quebec popular culture, told an interviewer that she would be afraid to go to a veiled female physician because "in her religion, women's lives are not worth as much as men's."

Another hugely popular personality, former actor and theatre director Denise Filiatrault, told by a radio interviewer that some women make their own choices about religious headwear, blurted: "That's false, they're manipulated and if they refuse, they're thrown into a lake! Come on, they're fools!"

(The allusion to the lake appeared to be a reference to the tragic murder of four Afghan-Canadian women near Kingston in 2009. Incidentally, none of the sisters in that so-called honour crime were veiled.)

In such an atmosphere, a true liberal has a duty to intervene. If the Liberals don't defend liberal values, who will?