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Quebec loses faith as Marois forgoes sovereignty for austerity

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois speaks in Baie St-Paul, Que, on May 16, 2013.


At a recent Parti Québécois meeting, Premier Pauline Marois defended her government's mission of completing a major "housecleaning" of the province before embarking on the ultimate goal of achieving sovereignty.

"Our objective is clear: It is to make Quebec a country. But first we must get things in order and get our confidence back," Ms. Marois told party delegates.

The fixation on balancing the budget by March, 2014, has left little room for anything else. With the PQ trailing the Liberals by as much as 14 points, Ms. Marois has launched into permanent pre-election campaign mode. She had been criss-crossing the province, unveiling new investments while trying to undo much of the damage caused by several months of blunders and broken promises. On Friday, the government confirmed that the director of communications, Shirley Bishop, and special adviser Stéphane Gobeil were being replaced.

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So far, the Marois record has been one of austerity over sovereignty. There is much unfinished business – the health tax was never completely abolished – and many unexpected moves to reconcile. Welfare payments were reduced to certain young families and older workers. Funding for daycare centres, universities and school boards was cut back. Mining companies lobbied hard and won their case in convincing the government to drop its pledge to double royalties and tone down provisions in the new Mining Act.

The threats to fight Ottawa and reclaim culture, employment insurance and federal venture capital funds have remained nothing more than a bluff. The PQ's signature legislation to reinforce the French Language Charter is being diluted. The government has announced it is postponing the tabling of a secular charter on religious accommodations.

Social activists and left-leaning sovereigntists have become disillusioned.

"They could have waited. There was no reason to proceed so rapidly at eliminating the deficit," said Laval University political scientist Réjean Pelletier. "The symbolic cuts in welfare programs, for instance, unleashed a public protest Ms. Marois should have [seen] coming."

Former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, in a two-part commentary published recently in the Montreal daily Le Devoir, offered an in-depth analysis of the province's financial situation and concluded the debt/deficit problem was being largely exaggerated.

He called into question Ms. Marois's decision to cut welfare, daycare and university funding. He argued that if Quebec adopted accounting practices used in the rest of Canada, as well as in most other developed countries, the province's debt would not only be viewed as manageable but well within acceptable boundaries.

"The situation isn't at all what some would like us to believe," Mr. Parizeau wrote, highlighting the fact that public opinion had been conditioned over the years to hold a grim outlook on the future of Quebec. "As for wanting to make a province into a country, don't even think about it. Austerity becomes the only horizon."

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Yet austerity measures weren't what the PQ promised in last year's election campaign. Ms. Marois campaigned on a pro-sovereignty, social democratic platform that would be in stark contrast to the Liberal agenda that, according to the PQ, catered to friends of the government. But once in power, the minority PQ bowed to pressures for a more conservative, pro-business agenda.

Among the measures that haven't been realized, perhaps the most symbolic is Bill 14. The controversial language bill, which has passed second reading, threatens to fall short of the expectations of French-language activists, with the detailed study of the legislation in September likely to result in a watered-down law.

Ms. Marois's efforts have all but failed at attracting right-wing nationalists, who were drawn to the Coalition Avenir Québec party in the last election and are now leaning towards recently elected Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard. The drop in support for the PQ has primarily benefited the left-wing pro-sovereignty Québec Solidaire party, which, at 11 per cent in the polls, has nearly doubled the support it received in last September's election.

At the same time, the PQ is being outflanked on the sovereignty issue by upstart Option Nationale party with its aggressive approach on achieving political independence. But as long as CAQ support remains in the 20-per-cent range, there will be no appetite for the party to use the balance of power it holds to precipitate another election.

That has assured Ms. Marois precious time to define a new strategy. PQ insiders believe they have at least until next spring's budget to rebuild popular support. According to Mr. Pelletier, the PQ would be well advised to use the time it has wisely and undergo a makeover. But that will require Ms. Marois to define a clear vision and assuage voter skepticism toward her government.

"Ms. Marois hasn't shown much vision as of yet. And that will have to change. … She has completed the housecleaning, now she will need to begin spending again," Mr. Pelletier said. "If there isn't any change of course, it will be a catastrophe for the PQ."

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