Quebec budget 2016: Philippe Couillard out to prove austerity measures worthwhile

Finance Minister Carlos Leitao’s main task today is to prove to Quebeckers that all the pain from the belt-tightening of the past two years was worth it.

Finance Minister Carlos Leitao's main task: to show Quebecers there's relief after 2 years of belt-tightening

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao will table his third budget on March 17. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Carlos Leitao's main task today is to prove to Quebecers that all the pain from the belt-tightening of the past two years was worth it.

This is the third budget the Liberal government has brought down since its election on April 7, 2014.

The past two have focused on arriving at a balanced budget, with the promise that once achieved, the government will start reinvesting. As Premier Philippe Couillard said yesterday, now there is "some room to work with."

Here's some of what you should watch out for when Leitao tables his budget at 4:00 p.m. ET.

1. Targeted spending, winners and losers

The premier has said once finances were under control, any new spending would be carefully targeted.

An example came in last fall's economic update, when the Liberal government invested in schools in vulnerable communities.

While targeted spending will please the recipients of increased budgets, it inevitably means some will be left out – and left unhappy.

2. More money for education 

Both Couillard and his finance minister, Carlos Leitao, say the education sector will see more money.

However, back in the fall, when Leitao provided an economic update – announcing an immediate $20 million reinvestment in education and $80 million annually from that point on – many in the cash-strapped system said that was just a drop in the bucket.

If Leitao announces another increase for education today, as expected, just how far will the money go and will it be enough?

3. Ending the health tax

We also know that the province is speeding up its decision to abolish the health tax.

Last year, the finance minister announced it would be phased out by 2019.

Now the government is expected to eliminate it by 2018: just in time for the next election.

4. Kickstarting the economy?

Economic growth is sluggish, and while the low Canadian dollar is positive for Quebec's manufacturers, they are not benefiting as much as they would like to.

Quebec has the lowest productivity levels in the country, and many say that's because equipment is not up to date, and technological change is lagging.

In this context, Couillard has talked about transitioning to a "new economy" and investing more in innovation, so the province can catch up to the rest of the world.

5. Laying the groundwork for 2018

This is a mid-mandate budget for Couillard.

The first two years were all about the difficult – and deeply unpopular – austerity measures.

By loading the front half of his mandate with tough decisions, Couillard is gambling that by the time the 2018 electoral campaign rolls around, cuts to education and health care and loud anti-austerity demonstrations will be a distant memory.

Today will be about trying to turn the page and rebranding his government from one focused on cutting billions of dollars from government programs to one focused on responsible spending.

Will Quebecers buy it? 


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.