Parti ​Québécois Leader Pauline Marois spent much of Thursday night's leaders' debate defending her government's record on the economy, job creation and social development and pledged there would be no referendum on sovereignty unless Quebecers were ready for one.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault asked Marois to give a "yes" or "no" answer regarding her plans to hold a referendum, if re-elected. 

"No, as long as Quebecers aren't ready for one," the PQ leader replied. 

Marois insisted that the election was about jobs and social issues such as the quality of Quebec's schools. 

On the PQ government's proposed secular charter, Marois challenged Liberal leader Philippe Couillard to tell voters to vote PQ if the charter is what they want.

Couillard instead challenged Marois to tell Quebecers how many women were going to be fired as a result of the charter, which bans the wearing of overt religious symbols among public service workers. 

Marois said the only woman to lose her job has been Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin, who quit the Liberal caucus and opted to sit as an independent when she refused to the toe the party line against the charter. Marois also contended that a transition period would allow women affected by the legislation to adjust to the ban.

In an exchange with Quebec Solidaire's Françoise David on the charter, Couillard said he believes in protecting individual freedom, which he said is essential to democracy. 

"It is something that protects us all against oppression, including the oppression of the majority over the minority. That's how democracy works."

David also went after Legault's position on sovereignty, asking him to clarify where he stood on federalism. Legault pointed to the more than $9 billion in transfer payments that Quebec receives from the rest of Canada as evidence that sovereignty is unrealistic.

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Marois put on the defensive early

Marois began the debate by asserting that her priorities are jobs and the secular charter, but quickly found herself fending off criticism of her government's record on job creation from Legault and Couillard. 

Legault came at Marois with Statistics Canada figures that he said showed Quebec flat-lining in terms of the creation of full-time jobs over the 18 months the PQ has been in power.

Marois disputed the allegation, saying 48,000 jobs been created in Quebec in 2013. Couillard said Marois was hiding the truth and accused her of invoking a form of recession in Quebec.

Marois pointed to the fact that Quebec's unemployment is in the same range as that of Ontario.

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PQ leader Pauline Marois reacts to a comment by CAQ leader François Legault during Thursday's French-language debate in Montreal. (CBC)

Oil in the hot seat

David questioned the PQ government's interest in exploring for oil on Anticosti Island. 

"It contradicts all of your previous ecological engagements," she said. 

Marois pointed to her government's pledge to invest millions in electric transport in Quebec as proof of her government's commitment to green energy.

She also maintained that tapping potential oil reserves in Quebec was a necessary step toward energy independence and would provide economic benefits for Quebecers.

She turned around and asked Couillard where he stood on oil exploration, pointing the Liberals' previous hesitancy on permits.

Couillard shot back, saying the PQ's embrace of oil exploration on Anticosti smacked of "amateurism" and "opportunism" given the many unknowns around the issue.

"You can't play the lottery with taxpayer money," he said. 

All agree that social services are fundamental

All four leaders also presented their views on social services in Quebec, and they all agreed they need work.

Marois pointed to her government's record on improving access to family doctors, the $400 million her government has spent ridding the province's schools of mould and its creation of 28,000 new care spots.

Her three opponents contended that Quebec's public services were management heavy and too bureaucratic. Legault said there were too many people behind the scenes and not enough people delivering direct services.

"The problem isn't a lack of money, but one of management and courage. The PQ and Liberals haven't had the courage to clean things up in health agencies and school boards," he said. 

Couillard argued that job creation is the basis of a better society and also pointed to the need to reduce bureaucracy. He pointed to Liberal policies for getting more people studying family medicine, which he claimed were now beginning to bear fruit.

David called social services a "fundamental right" and said public services are matters of "social justice." She pledged to get more Quebecers providing public services, especially more women.

The leaders clashed over the issue of school taxes and school boards, which Legault has pledged to abolish, while David raised the issue of support for seniors, which she feared could become privatized under the PQ's proposed autonomy insurance scheme. 

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