A Parti Quebecois majority government will not hold an independence referendum until Quebecers are ready for one, Leader Pauline Marois told a televised audience Thursday night.
But Marois refused to confirm in a debate with her political rivals there won't be a referendum if her party is re-elected on April 7.
"You know that (Liberal Leader Philippe) Couillard, in order to have people forget the Liberal years, would have you believe that this election is being fought on the issue of another referendum," she said during the leaders' debate.
"False. There will be no referendum as long as Quebecers are not ready."
With polls repeatedly suggesting that a majority of Quebecers do not want another referendum, the debate provided Marois with a perfect opportunity to reassure voters that a PQ victory would not spark an immediate vote on the province's future.
But, just like many previous PQ leaders who can't afford to alienate hardline sovereigntists in the party, Marois refused to say there wouldn't be a referendum in the next four years.
Marois reiterated that a PQ government would launch an extensive consultation period with Quebecers before making any decision to send them to the ballot box to vote on creating a country.
Couillard's basic strategy in the televised debate was clear: cast the PQ as a party that fosters political uncertainty at the expense of economic prosperity.
"The choice is clear," he said. "Do you want to elect the Parti Quebecois, which will prepare another referendum, or a Liberal government that will attend to the economy, jobs, education and health?
"With the PQ, Quebec lost 66,800 full-time jobs in 2013 and what is Madame Marois doing? She's building a team with another referendum in mind."
Marois also made it clear a PQ government would push ahead with the party's controversial charter of values, which would prevent public-sector employees from wearing religious clothing and symbols on the job.
Although the charter has divided Quebecers, Marois is hoping it will attract support from many small-c conservatives who can help the PQ win ridings currently held by Francois Legault's Coalition party.
Legault, whose party is struggling in opinion polls, said his government would do "great things" for Quebec, reduce taxes for the middle class and manage public funds in a more responsible manner.
"Quebec needs to start over, move forward," said Legault, who has admitted he is fighting the battle of his life. "I refuse to give up. I am convinced that we can do great things.
"The Parti Quebecois and the Liberals, since the beginning of the campaign, have talked about a referendum. In my opinion, they are disconnected from your reality."
Francoise David, whose leftist Quebec solidaire has two seats in the 125-member assembly, spoke about the importance of more equality in the province.
"For the past 40 years, two parties (the Liberals and the PQ) have formed the government. Isn't it time to look elsewhere? Isn't it time to choose Quebec solidaire?"
The leaders debated four topics: the economy; social issues such as education; public finances and integrity; and identity and the national question.
The debate was considered key because a large segment of the electorate was expected to tune in ahead of the election.
Opinion polls indicate the Liberals and the PQ are locked in a virtual tie in popular support, with the Coalition and Quebec solidaire in a distant third and fourth place respectively.
Although Marois had initially said she would participate in only one debate, she and the other leaders will also face off again next week on TVA, the television network owned by star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau.
There will be no English-language debate.
The debates are considered a chance for the leaders to set the tone for the remainder of the campaign, while a strong performance can energize a party's troops.