New Quebec Liberal government to focus on balancing province's fiscal books

Martin Ouellet / The Canadian Press
May 20, 2014 12:59 PM

QUEBEC - Quebecers will get an idea Wednesday of just how austere their government intends to be as Premier Philippe Couillard lays out his plans at the opening of the new session of the national assembly.

Couillard, a neurosurgeon by training, has already said he will take a scalpel to the province's bloated deficit and has warned of deep spending cuts in government departments.

Couillard is still aiming to meet the previous PQ government's objective of a $1.75-billion deficit in 2014-15 and a balanced budget the following year.

"The priority for me and for our government is to re-establish the budgetary equilibrium in Quebec in 2015-16," he said. "I remind people this is not an option.

"Of course, there will be those who say we can do it later but doing it later means pushing aside the problem."

Couillard's inaugural speech as premier to the legislature will be followed in early June by the first budget from rookie finance minister Carlos Leitao, who was chief economist of the Laurentian Bank before being elected in the Liberal victory April 7.

While economics will be the main priority of the government, it won't be the only concern for Couillard's team now that it has taken the reins of power.

It will also resurrect two pieces of legislation brought forward by the previous Parti Quebecois government which died on the order paper when then-premier Pauline Marois called the election on March 5.

One will be a law allowing physician-assisted death in the case of terminally ill patients who meet certain criteria. The legislation will be subject to a free vote among the Liberals and members of the third-place Coalition for Quebec's Future, while the PQ is expected to vote for the legislation as a bloc.

The other will create an inspector-general for the City of Montreal, a position that was a key plank in the successful election platform of Denis Coderre, who quit federal politics for the city's top job.

The inspector-general will oversee city spending as part of efforts to root out municipal corruption.

The government is also expected to table a bill on pension plans but that will likely be adopted later in the session.

One piece of legislation that will undoubtedly not be on the immediate agenda is anything resembling the PQ's divisive secular charter, which would have prohibited public-sector workers from wearing obvious religious symbols such as the kippa and the hijab.

While the Liberals made noises about coming up with their own legislation when the PQ proposed its law, Couillard's party hasn't made any obvious attempts to craft a bill and isn't expected to make such legislation a priority.

Couillard's team has said it intends to concentrate on uniting Quebecers and has suggested any secularism legislation would follow reasonable accommodation guidelines proposed by a commission convened by Jean Charest's government several years ago.

The PQ, which is back as the Official Opposition after an 18-month stint in power with a minority government, will get its first chance to grill the government on Thursday.

Stephane Bedard, the party's interim leader, said he hopes debates will be "constructive" in a respectful climate that is unlike the acrimonious atmosphere of the last session.

There will be some high-profile absences as the session gets underway.

Pierre Karl Peladeau, a media mogul turned star PQ candidate in the last election, was recovering in hospital Tuesday after a bicycle accident left him with multiple fractures on Sunday.

As well, former Liberal transport minister Julie Boulet, who was left out of Couillard's cabinet, is not expected to be present. Boulet recently testified at the province's corruption inquiry and was questioned about political party fundraising.

A staple of Quebec politics will be on hand however. Several unions plan to protest outside the legislature as it gets underway.

On Tuesday, Liberal Jacques Chagnon was again named Speaker. The incumbent was the only candidate.

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