After his first meeting with his cabinet, Premier Philippe Couillard said Thursday his government will focus on transparency and the economy.

Couillard said he vowed to make his agenda public when the session at the National Assembly begins May 20.

He added that new finance minister Carlos Leitao will table a budget in June, with the goal of attaining a balanced budget in 2015.

"We will use all the tools at our disposal to achieve this important goal, except increase the tax burden of Quebecers and decrease critical services," Couillard said, adding that an early look at the books indicates Quebec's deficit is more than $3.1 billion — rather than $2.5 billion as was previously being reported.

"'These are structural problems that go beyond changes in government, and it is especially necessary to get to work." Couillard said.

Wage freezes possible

Earlier today, Leitao told CBC Radio’s Daybreak with host Mike Finnerty that  it was too early to gauge the exact shape of Quebec's finances. However, he acknowledged that many of Quebec's financial issues are structural in nature and require a detailed review.

He said a possible public sector wage freeze is one of many topics that will need to be discussed.

“Our spending on programs is far too high in relation to the revenues we can normally expect to get from the economy. So we need to make sure that this is no longer the case. We need to make sure that spending is within our means,” he said.

Given Liberal promises to prioritize spending on health care, education and social services, Leitao said everything else will be “under close scrutiny.”

“Our first priority is to maintain our credit rating,” said Leitao, pointing to interest payments on Quebec’s debt that are currently in the range of $10 billion.

As a result, Leitao said credit agencies will be keeping a close eye on his first budget.

“My priority now is to get a budget through. Not just any budget, but a credible budget that is a realistic budget," he said.

Some measures already adopted

Couillard had already warned yesterday at the cabinet's swearing-in ceremony that getting Quebec's troubled economy back on track will require some tough decisions.

“Now is not the time for marginal or cosmetic measures. The time for difficult decisions has come,” Couillard said.

After that warning, cabinet adopted some measures today.

To stimulate the economy:

  • Offer credits on home renovations (work must be undertaken before Dec. 2015)
  • Increase investments for forestry workers​

To control spending:

  • A freeze on public sector hiring which does not affect direct services to the population

"'These are initial steps. It is not here — far from it — that our actions to tighten the province's belt will stop. These are temporary measures, and we will add other measures," Couillard said.

Two upcoming debates

When the National Assembly session begins in May, Couillard says his government will want to immediately table two bills which died on the order paper when the National Assembly was dissolved in March:

  • naming an inspector general for the city of Montreal, which Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre requested
  • end-of-life care

The new health minister, Gaétan Barrette, will be responsible for the end-of-life care bill.

"We want to pick up where we left off before the general elections were called. We know that this is a project that was welcome but not unanimous in society," Couillard said.