Quebec politicians unimpressed by Harper speech to Canadians

December, 3, 2008 - 10:55 pm Blatchford, Andy - (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

MONTREAL - Quebec doesn't need anti-sovereigntist rhetoric from the federal government while it copes with the global economic crisis, Premier Jean Charest said late Wednesday after hearing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's televised address to the nation.

Charest's reaction followed an earlier warning to federal politicians against attacking the Bloc Quebecois and engaging in Quebec bashing as they verbally slug it out in the political clash on Parliament Hill

"We must respect the choice that was made democratically by all citizens and all Quebecers," Charest said as he left a rally in Ste-Marie. "And there are, economically, things to settle. We should focus on that. It is the No. 1 priority. Quebec does not need political instability and rhetoric that divides people."

Criticism of support by the Bloc Quebecois for the coalition between the federal Liberals and the NDP to unseat Harper's Conservative government have resulted in cries from opponents on Parliament Hill that federal Liberal chief Stephane Dion and NDP boss Jack Layton are consorting with separatists who want only to break up Canada.

That has resulted in some Quebec bashing from some quarters and allegations that alliances with the Bloc are tantamount to treason.

Charest, who faced a shower of criticism for staying mum on the federal power struggle as the clash in Ottawa spilled over into the Quebec election campaign, appealed for calm late Wednesday afternoon and condemned the attacks against the Bloc.

"I live in a society where people can be federalist or sovereigntist but they respect each other," Charest said in Quebec City. "The same should be true in the federal Parliament."

Charest pointed out that 1.4 million Quebec voters had cast ballots for the Bloc in the Oct. 14 federal election and it has the political legitimacy to allow it to sit in Parliament.

Without identifying anyone, Charest said he found it regrettable that the opponents of the coalition had engaged in an argument tainted by "Quebec bashing."

"There have been people who have fallen into this trap," he said at an impromptu news conference, noting the priority now should be the economy.

Charest has done his best to stay out of the fray in Ottawa and his rivals on the election trail were not shy about pointing that out before he gathered the media.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois, her party in need of a major boost ahead of Monday's election, earlier accused Charest of letting Quebecers down by refusing to take a position on Ottawa's unfolding political crisis.

But she turned her fire on Harper Wednesday evening after the prime minister addressed Canadians on television. She accused him of embracing "unacceptable" Quebec bashing instead of reaching out to break the deadlock that grips the government.

She said it was the end of so-called open federalism.

"Tonight, the masks have fallen," she said. "I believe that Quebecers are deeply disappointed by the attitude of Mr. Harper."

For his part, Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont said none of the federal party leaders had expressed any openness in their televised speeches.

He said he expected Harper to reach out to the other party leaders.

"He made a speech that was disappointing," Dumont said. "No openness, no extended hand. But it was the same with the others."

Dumont said MPs should go back to their ridings and listen to their constituents. He said he hoped there would be a cooling-off period, even if it only postponed an election call or the formation of a coalition government.

In recent days, the federal coalition deal has dominated news headlines in the province and forced party leaders to address the turmoil in Ottawa instead of their own platforms.

With polls suggesting his Liberals had a commanding lead, Charest had cautiously steered clear of the Ottawa crisis.

He wouldn't say who he preferred as prime minister, instead choosing to recite his well-worn mantra of the need for government stability during difficult economic times.

Dumont, whose Action democratique du Quebec has been running a distant third in the polls, said earlier in the day that's not good enough.

Charest had tried to brush off his adversaries during an earlier news conference in Quebec City.

"In my eyes, as Quebec premier, it's very important that I don't present our interests to a federal political party," Charest said.

"I've always defended this liberty that we have in Quebec and the importance of having our hands free."

He reiterated his call to Quebecers of all political stripes to rally behind him to create a stable government to combat the economic slowdown.

Charest also accused Marois of trying to use the Bloc Quebecois' coalition deal in Ottawa to whip up sovereigntist momentum.

For her part, Marois challenged Charest to comment on gains she says the Bloc has made for the province by forming the coalition with the federal Liberals and NDP.

Several prominent sovereigntists have joined Marois in lauding the Bloc's participation in the coalition.

Former PQ leader Jacques Parizeau was quoted in Wednesday's Le Journal de Montreal as saying the deal is an "impressive victory" and proves to Quebecers how important the Bloc's presence is in Ottawa.

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