After two years of belt-tightening, the Quebec government has a new motto: Let the good news flow.
With half a mandate to go until the next election, Premier Philippe Couillard hopes that an unprecedented budget surplus and "reinvestment" in health and education will erase the citizens' discontent.
In his economic and fiscal update, Finance Minister Carlos Leitao underlined that the province has reduced its $280-billion gross debt. Although it fell by only $610-million, this is the first time it has fallen since 1959. Since the start of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, Quebec's debt has gone in one direction – up. While the debt is not exceptional compared with that of other modern states, Quebec has reached a record of indebtedness in Canada.
Be it debt per capita or ratio of debt to gross domestic product (53.8 per cent, compared with 39.8 per cent for Ontario), Quebec is by far the champion. The result is interest payments around $10-billion a year and less flexibility.
The three main political parties promised a zero deficit during the past election campaign. Of course, the opposition is now scandalized at the "inhumane" way it was achieved.
Cuts across the board and some good financial surprises (like a few days of public servants strike) resulted in a $2.2-billion budget surplus. Over the recent years, the government has built a Generations Fund that will soon reach $10-billion. It is managed by the Quebec public pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and is designed to reduce the debt for the future, when the aging of Quebec's people upends the population pyramid for good.
Cuts? There were no "budget cuts" per se, Mr. Leitao insisted. Just a decrease in the growth rate of expenses in every department. This may be statistically correct. But in constant dollars, it meant less money. More important, in real life, it meant cuts at school boards and care centres and fewer services.
In her annual report, Ombudsman Raymonde Saint-Germain said the poorest and the most vulnerable paid the price for these "non-cuts." One bath a week, dehydrated potatoes and other kinds of cheap and bad food, and rationing of incontinence briefs are commonplace in long-term-care centres. Not to mention delays for children with learning disorders to get help in public schools.
When faced with these criticisms, government officials typically answer that if any unfortunate turn of events happened, it is due to mismanagement at school boards or care centres.
So, voters, forget about all this and enter a new era after the cleanup has been done. The "health tax" has been cancelled. This means between $100 and $1,000 a year, depending on an individual's earnings. A clear and calculable tax cut.
Mr. Leitao also pointed out some encouraging economic signals: an unemployment rate at 6.9 per cent; record job creation for a province in the private sector; modest but better-than-expected growth.
Quebeckers can now expect a series of announcements until 2018, including millions of dollars for schools, universities, long-term-care centres. And all this with an eye on a balanced budget.
Will it win public favour? For now, the "good news" is overshadowed by the sum of disappointments. Two years in politics is more than an eternity, though.