Liberal, CAQ leaders off and running before election call

CANADIAN PRESS

Quebec's opposition leaders put on their pre-electoral game faces Tuesday, hours before a widely anticipated election call that Premier Pauline Marois hopes will bring her a majority mandate.

Riding high in the polls, the Parti Quebecois leader is expected to call a snap election Wednesday that would send the province to the ballot box on April 7.

Her main opponents already looked like they were on the campaign trail Tuesday, criticizing the PQ's record and highlighting the ideas they hope to sell to voters over the coming weeks.

Rookie Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said he felt like he was playing hockey and the playoffs were about to begin.

"We're only hours away from the election call — it appears obvious," Couillard, the national assembly's Opposition leader, told reporters in Quebec City.

"I'm putting together my attacking lines. My centres and wingers...have already been identified."

Couillard, who replaced former premier Jean Charest as Liberal leader last year, said his party, unlike the governing PQ, will focus on what he calls the true concerns of Quebecers: education, health, jobs and the economy.

He reiterated his dislike for the Marois government's controversial-yet-popular secularism charter, describing it as a plan that divides Quebecers.

Polls, however, have suggested the values charter has been a boon to Marois' minority government, which appears to be within reach of a majority mandate.

The PQ minority-accommodation project would ban public employees from wearing ostentatious religious symbols, like the Muslim veil, at work.

Supporters of the plan call it a tool to limit gender discrimination and to shield the province from what has been described as encroaching fundamentalism. Opponents call it a political ploy to shift attention away from more pressing matters, like the economy.

Third-party leader Francois Legault accused Marois on Tuesday of wanting to run her whole campaign on the secularism charter alone.

The leader of the right-of-centre Coalition party said he supports a watered-down version of the PQ plan, one that would only place the restrictions on public workers in authority positions, such as teachers, police officer and judges.

However, Legault said the government should be primarily focused on kick-starting the Quebec economy.

"Right now, Quebec is living beyond its means," Legault told reporters.

"Therefore we're in a situation that if we don't change our direction...we will hit the wall."

The PQ has made a series of recent annoucements with hope of dulling such attacks from opponents, who have repeatedly accused the party of mismanaging the economy.

The Marois government, which came to power in September 2012, has made multimillion-dollar public investments, including cash for a new cement plant in the Gaspe region and an oil-exploration project on Anticosti Island.

Last month, Marois' team also presented what it called a "responsible" budget filled with figures it says point to the PQ's economic accomplishments.

The document, which would not go to vote if an election is called this week, projected a $1.75-billion shortfall in 2014-15, a prediction that backed away from an earlier PQ promise to balance the books in 2013-14.

The party's zero-deficit target has now been put off until 2015-16, a change that prompted Fitch Ratings to downgrade Quebec's outlook in December to negative from stable.

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