Quebec political leaders laid out their key platform issues on Thursday as the province's election campaign got underway.
While attacking opponents on the tuition issue, the Liberals have made the economy the centrepiece of their campaign.
Liberal Leader Jean Charest promised Thursday to reduce unemployment to six per cent and work to create 250,000 jobs by 2017.
He said Plan Nord will be key in achieving that goal — as will increasing trade with emerging economies, such as China and India.
As for his rivals, Charest said they're more interested in sovereignty.
"There's no one interested in the economy, they're all there to hold a referendum as rapidly as possible. now there are two ways to get a referendum in Quebec — you either go out there and vote for Madame Marois, or for Québec Solidaire or for Option Nationale, or you stay home and you don't vote. That's the other way," Charest said.
He said his employment targets would be reached partly because of the Plan Nord mining development.
PQ makes broad education promises
PQ Leader Pauline Marois campaigned in Laval, where she teamed up with former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, now a candidate for Laval-des-Rapides, to outline the party's stance on post-secondary education.
In the first 100 days of its mandate, Marois said a PQ government would repeal the tuition increase and organize a summit to look at the issue.
"That is our position. It cannot be clearer," she said.
The party also pledged to ensure tuition increases in the future don't exceed the inflation rate.
Marois, who is campaigning on the slogan "For us to choose," said Quebecers have to make a choice: the Liberals who will perpetuate the crisis or the PQ who have a plan to end it.
Rising PQ star Bureau-Blouin called for a protest truce and warned students against playing into the Liberals' "peace and order" campaign strategy.
Marois and Bureau-Blouin both replied to a comment made by Charest, who called the Parti Québécois a "street party" for its involvement in the student protests.
To this, Bureau-Blouin replied, "It's better to be with the people on the street than at Sagard with the rich."
What they said:
"We want real change … with a Coalition Avenir Québec government, it will be zero tolerance for corruption and cronyism."
"If we must increase tuition fees, we aim not to do it beyond the cost of living. Cancelling the increase [...] and repealing Bill 78 in a summit within the first 100 days, that is our position. It cannot be clearer."
"I am certainly speaking to what I know is the most important issue for Quebecers and that's jobs and the economy. A solid economy means everything else is possible. "
"Our biggest challenge during this campaign is making sure that Quebecers know we exist."
The Coalition Avenir Québec announced Thursday how the party will tackle corruption in a province plagued by allegations of backroom deals and collusion.
In front of the Quebec City courthouse, Leader François Legault said a hard-line anti-corruption stance would be a priority for a CAQ government and measures to tackle it would be the focus of its first piece of legislation.
"It will involve a series of measures to help us get rid of the cancer that is corruption," Legault said.
"The law will make sure that every municipality's finances, small or big, will be scrutinized by an independent expert."
The CAQ's so-called "Bill 1" includes a plan to hire more experienced engineers to oversee contracts within the transport ministry.
The party also pledged to make public all cost overruns on taxpayer funded construction projects to be made public.
Legault was also on the defensive, after the Liberals attacked inconsistencies in the CAQ's donation records.
"There were some errors in the first list," he said. "So what we did in the last few months – and it took a long time – we asked all the banks to send us copies of the cheques that have been donated."
The problem was book-keeping, not the donations themselves, Legault added.
The CAQ also pledged to widen the Quebec auditor general's mandate to cover all of the province's Crown corporations, including Hydro-Québec and the Caisse de Dépôt.
Liberals job-creation pledge criticized
The job-creation figure championed by Charest on Thursday would be slightly better than what Quebec achieved during his first term, when the province added 215,000 jobs, while barely one-third of that was added in his latest term.
The 2011 unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent was significantly lower than when Charest took office in 2003 and comparable to that in the rest of Canada and the United States — which Charest called a first in 30 years.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois said she did not think this was a realistic number of jobs to create.
"In the past, Mr. Charest made certain engagements and was not able to respect these engagements. He said in 2008 he would create 20,000 jobs with the Plan Nord and he created only 10,000," said Marois.
The war waged on between the two leaders when Charest said the PQ's primary objective was separatism. He said Marois was ultimately trying to get a referendum but that the idea was highly unpopular with Quebecers.
"We have been very supportive of a society that is inclusive. Our party believes fundamentally that the future of Quebec is that of a society that affords a place for every one of its citizens and communities, including those who speak English."
'It's a duck'
Charest called Legault a sovereignist who is proposing to dismantle anglophone school boards.
"On Mr. Legault, my simple, very straightforward way of putting it goes this way: if it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it's a duck."
At his campaign launch in Nicole, Que., Jean-Martin Aussant, leader of Option Nationale – the platform created by Aussant after leaving the PQ – did not shy away from his party's main purpose; leading Quebec as a nation state.
"Option Nationale will focus on the fact that all the problems outlined during this campaign would be better dealt with if Quebec was a sovereign state and managed its own development, not unlike 200 other countries in the world that never regretted being masters of their own place," said Aussant.
If elected, Aussant would nationalize resources in order to have full control of the growth and development of the province's natural assets.
He said that letting independent foreign states control the province's resources and implementing themselves in Quebec "makes no sense."
Aussant said his party supports free post-secondary education, but hopes the other parties steer away from the student crisis rather than use it as the only pillar to polarize voters.
The ON leader concluded the press conference by saying he hopes Quebecers will see Option Nationale as an alternative to the the Liberal Party and the PQ, who have been alternating powers for 42 years.