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As budget nears, Quebec opposition worries election call will let PQ off the hook

Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau is shown in Chelsea, Que., on Dec. 16, 2013.


Quebec opposition parties fear Premier Pauline Marois will dodge a debate on the state of the province's finances by triggering elections shortly after Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau unveils an expected light-on-details budget next Thursday.

After a 15-month wait, opposition parties finally got what they were clamouring for: a budget that will update Quebec's financial situation. But they wonder how detailed Mr. Marceau's second budget will be – and whether they will even have the opportunity to question what they view as an electoral budget.

Mr. Marceau's budget is expected to be less specific than his first, in which he tried to reassure investors concerned with the Parti Québécois's perceived hostile stand toward business interests. Absent from the documents would be the detailed spending forecasts for each department that are customarily released with the budget, although Mr. Marceau's press officer refused to confirm or to deny the information revealed by La Presse on Saturday.

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"While a delay in releasing the credits is not unheard off, this would only heighten the doubts we already harbour on the budget's assumptions, given the government's low financial credibility," Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said in an interview.

"It they give out less details, it is because they have something to hide," said Christian Dubé, finance critic for the Coalition Avenir Québec. The MNA for the riding of Lévis believes it will be impossible to ascertain if the PQ will live up to its revised deficit projections without looking into those detailed spending forecasts.

"I am not sure they [the PQ] will have the courage to tell the truth and to defend their budget out of fear of not being re-elected" Mr. Dubé said.

Last fall, the PQ broke its promise to eliminate the deficit in the current fiscal year with the projection of a $2.5-billion shortfall. Only in 2015-16 will Quebec balance its books. But according to Mr. Dubé, the revised forecast already appears unrealistic, given higher-than-expected government spending increases in the first seven months of this fiscal year.

The budget's last-minute call is seen as a forerunner of a spring election. Rumours of an election call have been fuelled in recent weeks by opinion polls showing a majority is within the PQ's reach.

The PQ was in a similar situation in 2003, when Premier Bernard Landry called for provincial elections shortly after Ms. Marois, then Finance Minister, tabled a budget. After the Liberals won, an investigation by a former provincial auditor uncovered a $4-billion shortfall in the province's finances.

Last week, while disputing the urgency of producing a budget – confirmation of which only came late Friday – Ms. Marois asserted that the province's financial situation hadn't really changed since it was revised last fall.

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The timing of the budget is also raising eyebrows. As a large contingent of political and business reporters will be locked up to dissect hundreds of pages of financial documents, the acting Auditor-General of Quebec will release the findings of his investigation into Mr. Marceau's fall financial update, which was conducted at the request of opposition parties. "We can legitimately ask ourselves is this is not an attempt to bury one with the other," Mr. Couillard said.

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