If Parliament's return in Ottawa this week has the makings of an electoral campaign kickoff, the National Assembly's return in Quebec resembles the end of a very short honeymoon for the province's Liberal government. While June's austerity budget hinted at the shape of things to come, the next few months will see these budget proposals tested by fierce public and opposition criticism.
As in 2003, when Jean Charest turned his feel-good electoral platform into a hard-nosed austerity agenda, Premier Philippe Couillard is moving fast to get Quebec's public purse in order. While Mr. Charest packaged this as part of a larger initiative to "re-engineer" the state, Mr. Couillard has framed his efforts as the only way to face an imminent "fiscal wall."
A main point of contention is Bill 3, which would force the restructuring of municipal pension plans, recalibrate contributions to a 50-50 formula and allow employers to suspend cost-of-living indexing. The combined deficits in Quebec's municipal pension plans are upward of $4-billion, but the proposed measures are seen to renege on previous negotiated settlements, and the unions are up in arms. In Montreal, much of the response has been benign – city buses plastered with protest stickers, firefighters screeching their sirens, police personnel flaunting camouflage gear – but in June, things veered toward vandalism when municipal workers trashed the city's council chambers. Negotiations will be tough, and a mass protest march is scheduled for later this month. But Mr. Couillard's government seems grimly determined to make Bill 3 the centrepiece of its legislative efforts.
The buck hardly stops there, though. Even more telling, perhaps, are plans for three central pillars of Quebec's social model: child care, health care, and postsecondary education.
Quebec's child-care program has almost become a victim of its own success – hugely popular among families, and bursting at the seams with demand for spaces. The PQ government that introduced the program in 1997 insisted on the principle of "universality" – that child care was a collective responsibility to be funded through taxes and accessible to all. The initial $5-a-day contribution increased to $7 in 2004, and former premier Pauline Marois proposed a further increase to $9. Rumours are now rife that the Liberals are considering a review of the funding structure that will make users of the system (namely, young families) pay a supplement based on income when filing their taxes.
This backtrack on universality resembles the retroactive tax on the frequency of health-care use that the previous Liberal government proposed in 2010, and quickly backtracked on. There are no plans to revisit that strategy now – instead, a substantial reorganization is in the works to reduce by more than half the regional health structures in place. The government says this will reduce administrative costs, but critics say it will also concentrate decision-making powers in the hands of Health Minister Gaétan Barrette. Mr. Barrette, former head of the federation of specialist physicians, is already facing the wrath of his former colleagues in spreading out the $400-million fee increase that he himself helped to negotiate for them.
With tuition hikes off the table, no one expects a repeat of 2012's mass student protests. But university administrations will feel the cost-cutting, and then some. Varying reports have estimated the funding cuts at $170-million to $300-million, hefty sums for institutions that have faced successive years of the same.
Quebeckers look to be in for a long, hot political season.