MONTREAL - Old arguments over Quebec independence have mesmerized the two big fish in the provincial election campaign, says Mario Dumont, the third party leader whose unexpected lure is putting pressure on the two front-runners.

Dumont, leader of the Action democratique du Quebec, slammed his Liberal and Parti Quebecois rivals Tuesday for fixating on referendum fallout instead of proposing new ideas to improve Quebecers' lives.

The ADQ leader said the debate between Jean Charest and Andre Boisclair is taking place in their own private fishbowl and is producing nothing but bubbles.

"They are hiding behind red herrings in their aquarium in order to conceal their own inaction," Dumont told reporters near Quebec City.

"Andre Boisclair and Jean Charest are having a dialogue about a virtual referendum, a referendum in their aquarium. For them it's very important but everyone outside the aquarium just sees bubbles."

Charest caused a stir on the campaign trail earlier this week when he suggested the federal government could cut off transfers to Quebec if the PQ comes to power in the March 26 election.

The Liberal premier later backed off, saying the money would stop flowing if Quebecers voted in favour of independence.

Boisclair accused Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of conspiring to blackmail Quebecers.

For his part, Dumont has largely stayed out of the referendum debate. On Tuesday, he proposed spending $100 million in the first year of an ADQ government to open a network of walk-in clinics to help Quebecers have better access to family doctors.

Another side issue also dogged Charest on Tuesday as he faced questions about his support for a soccer referee who asked a Muslim girl to remove her hijab during a game on the weekend.

Charest repeated that the official was following the rules when he asked the girl to take it off. He was in the Laurentians, north of Montreal, to announce more extracurricular activities and a longer school day for help with homework.

In the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region, Boisclair said Charest made a mistake wading into the hijab debate.

"We're not talking about reasonable accommodation because it has nothing to do with public services," Boisclair said. He pledged his support for the local aluminum industry and more regional autonomy.

He accused Charest of scoring cheap political points among some Quebecers who have expressed discomfort with special consideration afforded to immigrants in the public sphere.

Charest tried to step back from the issue.

"I'm not trying to tell soccer referees what to do," he said. "We're not trying to manage every soccer match in Quebec. But it seems normal in the framework of sport that they would have rules like that."

The accommodation controversy has raged in Quebec since last December, fuelled by incidents ranging from a Montreal community centre that banned men from prenatal classes to accommodate Muslim, Sikh and Hindu women, to a small town that banned face coverings and adopted a declaration of "norms" that tells immigrants how to fit in.

Charest ordered a commission to study the issue and has tried to steer clear of the debate.

"This premier should be more careful than to personally weigh in on an issue like that by saying the referee was right," Boisclair said.

"While Jean Charest is making a big deal out of this girl and her hijab what directives has he handed out in the public administration or health services? That's where he must act."

In recent months, Dumont has tried to pose as the protector of Quebec values, saying public institutions have gone too far to accommodate minorities. He said the soccer controversy is a private matter and has nothing to do with Charest.

"To me, Jean Charest's involvement shows a lack of judgment worthy of what Andre Boisclair has proven over recent months," said Dumont.