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Marois refuses to rule out referendum

Marois refuses to rule out referendumParti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois greets some young girls as she arrives for a news conference, Thursday, March 6, 2014 in Drummondville, Que. Quebecers will vote in a provincial election April 7, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL - Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois might hold an independence referendum if her party forms a majority government after the April 7 election.

Then again, she might not.

Her will-she-or-won't-she coyness on Day 2 of the Quebec election campaign is a virtual tradition among PQ leaders as they gauge their chances for success among a population that has made its distaste for referendums clear since divisive votes in 1980 and 1995.

Those were both won by the federalist forces, although the 1995 victory was razor-thin and a source of hope to those pursuing independence.

While Rene Levesque and Jacques Parizeau, both of whom had majority governments, were clear about their intentions to hold sovereignty referendums in their first mandates, other PQ leaders such as Lucien Bouchard were more cautious.

It was Bouchard who repeatedly invoked the need for "winning conditions" before holding any referendum, a mantra that has been picked up by successive PQ leaders.

"When we decide to hold a referendum, there will be discussions with Quebecers," Marois said Thursday.

"We're not trying to hide anything, we're not going to do anything in the middle of the night and there will have to be a consensus. I'm not going to discuss strategy in public but there is no promise to hold a referendum and there is no promise not to."

She added that anyone interested in the PQ program should feel free to vote for the party.

"Nobody will be taken by surprise."

The PQ leader could easily have been talking about herself. The party has a history of devouring its leaders when hardliners feel sovereignty hasn't been pushed hard enough.

She has drawn some criticism for her go-slow approach, and she skirted the sovereignty issue in the 2012 campaign to focus on corruption, language and identity politics.

That included promises of a secularism charter which has drawn wide support in some quarters and outrage in others since its tabling as a bill in the national assembly.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition for Quebec's Future, have hammered Marois in the past about having a sovereigntist agenda.

On Thursday, Legault said the PQ leader is out of tune with what Quebecers are thinking by suggesting a referendum is possible.

"I think that right now Mme Marois is singing an old song about this referendum and nobody wants to talk about that right now," he said.

"They (people) want to talk about the money in their pockets. They pay too much tax, they want to talk about jobs, economy, but nobody wants to talk about a referendum. I think Mme Marois is living on another planet right now."

On Thursday, Marois gave a lengthy news conference after not speaking to reporters following Wednesday's election call.

She also announced star candidate Daniel Lebel, a former president of the Quebec order of engineers who the PQ hopes will bolster its anti-corruption image.

Her opponents concentrated on the economy Thursday, with Couillard pledging to create 250,000 jobs during the next five years if he is elected premier.

"That number has been validated by our colleagues and by our economic team," Couillard told a news conference in Montreal. "It's realistic and will be reached in several ways."

In a bid to boost his economic credentials, Couillard also trotted out three candidates with a financial background, including Carlos Leitao, who was chief economist with the Laurentian Bank until announcing his candidacy.

The Coalition, meanwhile, promised to give families a break of $1,000 by 2017-18 by gradually abolishing a health tax and a school tax.

Legault said families with income below $45,000 will no longer pay the health tax as of 2014-15 and that no families will pay it as of the following year.

The party said the money would come mainly from a hiring freeze on government administrative employees. The freeze would not affect employees who offer services to the public, Legault said.

The PQ's Nicolas Marceau, who was finance minister in Marois' government, dismissed both parties' plans, saying Couillard was resurrecting ideas proposed by the Liberal leader's predecessor, Jean Charest, in the 2012 election which saw the PQ elected with a minority government.

Marceau accused Legault of being so desperate he would promise anything.

The PQ also lost one of its stalwarts on Thursday as Marie Malavoy, Marois' education minister, announced she was stepping aside to give another candidate a chance to serve in government.

— With files from Canadian Press reporters Alexandre Robillard, Melanie Marquis and Patrice Bergeron

Follow @nelsonwyatt @arobillard @melmarquis on Twitter

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