Quebec Budget 2016: Philippe Couillard tries to write a new chapter

The Liberals tried to pivot away from their singular focus – or if you ask the opposition, their obsession – of the first half of their mandate: controlling spending.

Liberal's surplus budget overshadowed by arrest of Liberal ex-deputy premier

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard responds to the Opposition, during question period Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Liberals tried to pivot away from their singular focus – or if you ask the opposition, their obsession – of the first half of their mandate: controlling spending.

When Finance Minister Carlos Leitao tabled his third budget, he attempted to point Quebecers towards a new image for his government – one that is prudent, responsive and smart when it comes to spending on public services.

It is an image Premier Philippe Couillard hopes will serve him when he hits the campaign trail in about two years. They hope it will cause Quebecers to forget about the painful anti-austerity measures that coloured Leitao's first two budgets.

This is why the money the Liberals decided to spend this year is targeted:

  • 50 per cent off the unpopular increase in daycare fees for a second child, retroactively to 2015.
  • $700 million over three years to fix crumbling schools.
  • $850 million over five years for the manufacturing industry (green technology & innovation).

These are all examples of specific problems which generated public outcry and garnered lots of media attention. They also happen to be election-friendly.

If you asked those people who poured into the streets to protest Couillard's belt-tightening measures, they would call his government relentless in pursuit of a zero deficit. By addressing these specific problems head on, the Liberals are trying to recast themselves as "listeners." And a new tone is necessary if they want to have a strong chance in 2018.

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao presents his budget speech, Thursday, March 17, 2016 at the Quebec Legislature. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, right, looks on. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

But writing a new chapter in the story of the Couillard government is not that simple.

They still have fiscal challenges to deal with, even though spending is under control. While they have some more room to manoeuvre financially, it is not much, due in part to low economic growth.

As we saw Thursday, the external factors that pose a problem for the Liberal government are not just financial. Just when Couillard thought the Charbonneau Commission into corruption and political financing was behind him, his party's past came back to haunt him.

Deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau was arrested Thursday, on budget day, by the province's anti-corruption unit. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The bombshell arrests of former Liberal deputy premier, Nathalie Normandeau, and six others distracted the public from what the premier had billed the day before as what would be a "good news" day for his government because of his surplus budget.

The seven accused faces charges related to illegal campaign financing. The arrests ended up overshadowing it.

The Liberals can work hard to get Quebec's financial house in order so that they can write that new chapter and have the best chance for re-election, but as Thursday showed them, there will always be factors out of their control that they may not be able to overcome.


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.


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