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Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau responds to reporters’ questions during a photo opportunity in his office in Quebec City on Feb. 18, 2014. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau responds to reporters’ questions during a photo opportunity in his office in Quebec City on Feb. 18, 2014. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Marois pledges ‘responsible’ budget as Quebec opposition prepares to pounce Add to ...

Premier Pauline Marois is promising to table a “responsible” budget on Thursday, one that opposition parties contend will create a false sense of security over the province’s shaky financial situation on the eve of a likely election campaign.

“We will not raise taxes,” Ms. Marois promised in the National Assembly. “And we will set hydro rates to the cost of living.”

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The Premier declined to say whether the government’s spending estimates will be released at the same time as the budget. In the last budget, tabled in the late fall 2012, the spending estimates unveiled millions of dollars in cutbacks to social programs.

The opposition parties are anxious to use Thursday’s financial outlook to launch an attack against the Parti Québécois in what will likely be a glimpse of what the coming election campaign will look like. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard is convinced the PQ will attempt to hide the province’s true financial picture.

“Quebeckers have a right to know what impact it will have on services. How much will the cutbacks be on public services?” Mr. Couillard asked.

For days now, Quebec has been buzzing with rumours that an election will be called early next month for a vote in April. Tabling a budget a few weeks before an election call would give the PQ minority government time to mount a public-relations campaign to sell its budgetary measures and put the final touches on Ms. Marois’s election strategy.

A public-opinion poll on Tuesday indicated that the PQ is on course to form a majority government. The survey conducted by the polling firm CROP for the dailies La Presse and Le Soleil showed the PQ with 40 per cent of popular support and the Liberals trailing at 34 per cent, while the Coalition Avenir Quebec was at 16 per cent.

Among the crucial francophone voters who decide the fate of governments in the province, the poll showed the PQ at 47 per cent, well ahead of the Liberals at 24 per cent. The government’s approval rating was at 42 per cent, according to the poll. The survey was conducted between Feb. 13 and 16, using 1,000 participants from an online panel representative of the province’s demographics.

“I’m enthusiastic, I can’t wait to go into an election campaign,” Mr. Couillard said, knowing that he faces an uphill battle to regain public confidence lost during the debate over the PQ’s controversial secular values charter.

Former Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only elected Muslim woman in the National Assembly, was ousted from caucus for opposing the Liberal position on the charter. Mr. Couillard refused to support her proposal to prohibit some public-service employees from wearing overt religious symbols. Ms. Houda-Pepin also called on her party to wage a battle against religious fundamentalists.

Now sitting as an Independent, Ms. Houda-Pepin met with the PQ caucus on Tuesday to explain the private member’s bill on the issue she tabled recently. Ms. Marois told Ms. Houda-Pepin that the government may include some of her proposals in the values bill.

But if an election is called, the bill will die on the order paper, as well as several other important pieces of legislation, unless the government and opposition parties can reach an agreement for quick passage by Thursday when the National Assembly will recess for two weeks. The election is expected to be called before the winter-spring session resumes on March 11.

The bill the PQ minority most wants adopted is end-of-life legislation, which allows some terminally ill adult patients to choose euthanasia. So far, the debate over the emotionally charged issue has been non-partisan but with the election frenzy gaining momentum, the opposition won’t say whether the bill will be adopted before the recess.

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