The Quebec Liberals are struggling in the polls despite a stellar economy. The budget may tell us why

Despite his protestations to the contrary, the political calculations are easy to spot in the budget Finance Minister Carlos Leitão tabled on Tuesday.

It's got lots of spending, but does the 2018 budget make you want to watch Liberal government, the sequel?

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao walks in to table his budget, Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at the National Assembly in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A budget tabled seven months before an election — by a political party that's down in the polls — is best taken with a grain of salt.

The temptation for electioneering is high. A couple of tax breaks here and some infrastructure projects there, and hopefully a new mandate follows.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, the political calculations are easy to spot in the budget Finance Minister Carlos Leitão tabled on Tuesday.

It announces, for instance, $250 million to compensate taxi drivers for the declining value of their taxi permits, brought on by ride-hailing services such as Uber.

The prospect of noisy protests by taxi drivers clogging downtown streets – a favourite tactic in the past – is both a literal and metaphorical headache the Liberals hope to avoid.

Leitão's budget also contains a number of measures for improving the integration of immigrants into the workforce. And to be fair, he makes a sound economic argument for doing so, given the province's increasingly dire labour shortage.

But in his budget speech, Leitão — himself a Portuguese immigrant — made a more heartfelt plea for why such measures are needed.

"The Quebec I love, the one that welcomed me, is an open, inclusive Quebec," he told the National Assembly.  

Leitão, it deserves mentioning, also recently accused the Coalition Avenir Québec of currying ethnic-nationalism in their proposal to cut by 10,000 the number of immigrants the province accepts every year.

Immigration is clearly a front where the Liberals feel their rivals are vulnerable.

As a whole, the budget is replete with spending promises that are more aspirational than firm commitments of cash.

Many are funding announcements that are stretched over five years, never mind the election that needs to be held in the meantime.

The riddle of Couillard's government

But if this budget is not to be read literally, how then to make sense of its dizzying array of promises, its 4.7-per cent increase in spending, its millions in new money for health and education?

Perhaps it contains an answer to the riddle that is Philippe Couillard's Liberal government.

His government is, after all, sitting on a mountain of cash from an economy that is growing at a rate not seen since 2002.

Despite a strong economy, Philippe Couillard's Liberal government has been trailing the Coalition Avenir Québec in most recent polls. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

They've reined in the provincial debt, slayed the deficit and positioned the government to benefit from structural surpluses into the near future.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a premier not willing to trade for Couillard's financial situation. 

And yet, somehow, his government is unloved, trailing the CAQ in most recent polls.

Not that the province is undergoing Legault-mania, but political logic would suggest a party with the Liberals' economic record ought to have an easier go at re-election.

So what gives?

The key to this riddle could be in the supposed virtue of Tuesday's spendthrift budget.

Indeed, it had a little something for everyone — the young, the old, the poor, the rich — and yet it is difficult to discern an overriding vision. 

The hefty surpluses of this year, as well as the last, were the product of a severe two-year belt-tightening regime.

Attacking the debt is not an end in itself, as Leitão himself admitted on the eve of his budget. But his government has struggled to articulate what exactly the end was.

Emergency room wait times remain mostly unchanged. High-school drop-out rates are still high. Progress on public transit — Montreal's LRT aside — remains slow, distant.

Several observers have described the budget as an effort to help Quebecers forget the pain that came with the lean years.

But that is quite a different operation from making them feel like the pain was worthwhile, that there was some larger social goal to which everyone was contributing.

Of course, that may be what the Liberals are going for. They're sound managers of the public purse; a tax credit in case you need it, but no over-commitment of public funds, no grandiose spending schemes.

Except that seven months from the election, their audience is beginning to shrug and wondering if it should bother with the sequel.