The Rorschach budget: What do you see when you look at Quebec's economic plan?
Quebec’s 2017 is a budget of hope. Unless, of course, it’s not.
The 2017 Quebec budget is a responsible piece of fiscal planning, elegant in its foresight and thrift.
Or it is a myopic disaster, one that ignores the painful legacy of budgets past and jerks the public ledger around in a shallow electoral ploy.
If, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, then there at least as many ways of looking at a government budget.
It's something of a fiscal Rorschach test. What you see in Carlos Leitao's latest effort will depend, largely, on how you understand the present; a glass half-empty, half-full kind of thing.
The government is projecting a $2.5 billion surplus for 2017-2018. That can't be bad. Saskatchewan, by comparison, just tabled a budget with a nearly $700 million deficit, not to mention a one percentage point hike to the provincial sales tax.
- Quebec budget 2017: What it means for your wallet
- Minor tax relief, more cash for health and education in Quebec's 2017 budget
Quebec's surplus, on the other hand, will help finance small tax cuts and a hefty payment on its debt. Such largesse is permitted, according to Leitao, by the province's sound economic fundamentals.
"Quebec is in much better economic and fiscal health," Leitao said in his budget speech. "We have put Quebec back on the road to prosperity."
So where's the problem?
Looks great, right? So where's the problem? Well, if you step a little to the left, or right, the picture takes on a different hue.
The current surplus was enabled by a dramatic — some say draconian — spending slowdown in the first two years of the Liberals' mandate.
Doctors overburdened with paperwork, nurses exhausted to the point of burnout, a justice system so slow its delays became unconstitutional: aggressive debt-slaying looks great on a bar graph, but it's experienced somewhat differently on the ground.
- Quebec court delays lead to cases against alleged criminals being dropped
- MUHC staff cuts affecting patient care, surgeons warn
The sizeable reinvestments in health care and education this year might amount to a tacit acknowledgement by this government that it got a little scissor-happy at the start of its mandate.
Moreover, it invites cynicism to claim, at the outset, that the province is in the death-grip of debt, only to stumble upon excess billions when another election appears on the horizon.
No surprise, then, that opposition politicians called out the government's "stop-and-go" approach as a reckless electoral tactic.
Where the three parties diverge is how these gains ought to be redistributed.
The Parti Québécois and its sometime ally on the left, Québec Solidaire, want the surplus to be plowed back into the ministries that had their budgets ravaged — namely education and health.
They see Quebec's welfare model as being in a state of crisis. In which case, no wonder debt repayment is way down their list of priorities.
Debt payment drops down the list for the CAQ too, but only because it gets in the way of tax relief more substantial than the crumbs offered in the budget.
Why the hurry? Legault doesn't see in Quebec an economic engine ready to roar to life, but one sputtering as its neighbours open the throttle.
"The budget only anticipates GDP growth of 1.7 per cent, while we anticipate two per cent growth in Ontario and 2.5 per cent in the U.S.," Legault told Radio-Canada.
"We have to kick-start the economy."
This is not mere bickering about how to spend a multi-billion dollar surplus. This is a debate featuring fundamentally different views about the current fiscal and economic health of the province.