Quebec government under fire for ignoring COVID-19 impact in new budget

Premier François Legault defended his government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one day after tabling a budget that is free of measures to deal with the outbreak and forecasts it will have little impact on Quebec's economic growth.

Premier says government will intervene if necessary, but current spending enough to deal with outbreak

Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard, left, shares a laugh with Quebec Premier Francois Legault, right, after presenting his budget speech on Tuesday. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Premier François Legault defended his government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one day after tabling a budget that is free of measures to deal with the outbreak and forecasts it will have no impact on Quebec's economic growth.

The spending plan tabled Tuesday by Finance Minister Eric Girard calls for a 5.1-per cent spending increase, and includes billions more for long-term infrastructure projects.

That should be sufficient, Legault said, to offset an economic slowdown, which economists say is a distinct possibility given the coronavirus outbreak is already disrupting economies in Asia and Europe.

Legault also said his finance minister has a struck a committee to ready a stimulus package, in case Quebec's economy also starts to falter.

"If we need to do more, we already have a committee that is looking at additional expenses and infrastructure [projects]," Legault said Tuesday in Quebec City.

"But right now we don't think we need to add to yesterday's budget."

Earlier on Wednesday, the federal government announced a $1-billion aid package to help the country cope with the spread of COVID-19. Legault said he expects Quebec to receive around $230 million of that money.

Too optimistic about growth, Opposition says

Legault was responding to criticism from both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, who are accusing the government of being overly optimistic about the financial consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, now considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

As part of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Quebec government is setting up specialized testing centers across the province. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Carlos Leitão, the Liberal finance critic and a former finance minister, said he was surprised Girard drew up a $118 billion budget based on revenues from GDP growth forecast at 2 per cent this year.

"It's not just off target, it's expired," Leitão said. "The budget was tabled yesterday without taking into account the reality of the moment. And the reality is an economy that is growing much less vigorously."

Governments often use more conservative GDP forecasts for budgeting purposes. But Girard's expectation of 2-per cent growth is higher than recent estimates issued by National Bank and Desjardins, who both say growth this year will be closer to 1.7 per cent.

The global economic outlook hasn't improved since then. The Toronto Stock Exchange took another hit Wednesday, after hitting historic lows on Monday. It's down 20 per cent since Feb. 20, the technical definition of a bear market.

And more locally, there are signs the tourism industry is starting to feel the impact. The world figure skating championships, slated to begin Monday in Montreal, were cancelled because of COVID-19. 

"Government revenues this year are not going to be those projected​," Leitão said. "[The budget] has already passed its best-before date."

QS backs government's response

As did the Liberals, the PQ suggested the government's overall response to the outbreak has lacked co-ordination between different ministries and across municipalities. 

Joël Arseneau, the PQ's health critic, said the government has also been vague about what contingency plans are in place if the outbreak gets worse in Quebec.

Breaking down the Quebec budget

2 years ago
Duration 1:23
Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard shows us the numbers behind the province's 2020-21 budget.

"Things are evolving in such a way that we're not going to be able to avoid the harsh consequences of coronavirus," Arseneau said. "We don't want what happened in Italy to happen here."

The government, though, found an unexpected ally in Québec Solidaire.

The left-wing party is usually steadfast in its opposition to the centre-right government, but nevertheless welcomed Girard's wait-and-see approach to the crisis.

"He's calm. He's sending the right signals," said Vincent Marissal, finance critic for QS. "You will not hear me say nice things about this government often."

The Quebec government made additional directives on Wednesday aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. They include:

  • No professional trips abroad for health-care workers. 
  • No more school trips to countries where the risk of catching COVID-19 is high.
  • Asking parents of school children not to take them on trips to high-risk countries.

There are currently nine confirmed COVID-19 cases in Quebec.

With files from Cathy Senay and Peter Evans