The Parti Québécois minority government has overcome a major hurdle by surviving the passage of its budget by a single vote.
Several Liberal members were deliberately absent from the National Assembly on Friday, allowing the PQ budget to be adopted by a vote of 49 to 48.
Failure to adopt the budget would have plunged Quebec into another general election less than three months after the PQ was elected to power on Sept. 4.
The National Assembly is made up of 54 PQ MNAs, 50 Liberals, 19 Coalition Avenir Québec and 2 Québec Solidaire members.
The Liberals, who are involved in a leadership race, explained that it would have been unacceptable to force another election on voters so soon, at a cost of $100-million. But they warned the PQ could face a non-confidence vote any time next spring.
"We have chosen to put this government on notice and indicate that unless it seeks economic growth and protects public services in the coming months, a vote of confidence will be tabled," said Liberal Treasury Board critic Sam Hamad.
The Liberals were placed in a difficult situation when the Coalition Avenir Québec warned it would vote against the budget bill. CAQ Leader François Legault was able to take a tough stand knowing that the Liberals, without a permanent leader, would have no choice but to allow passage of the budget.
The Liberals have also been scrambling lately to defend the party's integrity after revelations at the Charbonneau commission into corruption pointed to questionable party fundraising practices involving construction bosses who allegedly had close ties to organized crime.
"They [the Liberals] asked their MNAs not to be present for the vote, and the real reason for that is not the budget," Mr. Legault said. "It is because they have no leader and also because they are in the middle of the Charbonneau commission, with all the bad news we have heard in the last few weeks."
The budget, which was tabled on Nov. 20, included tax hikes for the wealthy, as well as increases in hydro rates and tobacco and alcohol taxes. Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said the measures were needed to reach a balanced budget by the end of the next fiscal year. The budget also underscored the PQ's decision to back down on several election promises, including the elimination of the $200 health tax.
Premier Pauline Marois explained on several occasions that her government needed to table the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget three months ahead of time to appease concerns expressed by the business community over the province's economic and financial situation. Ms. Marois will be going to New York in less than two weeks to reassure U.S. investors about Quebec's economic and political situation.
The government has also taken the unusual step of releasing spending estimates next week, rather than waiting until the end of the fiscal year in March. The estimates for the 2013-2014 fiscal year will be tabled late next week, just before the National Assembly adjourns until February – allowing the government to avoid daily questions from the opposition benches on its spending forecasts.