Quebec budget, 'winter games' veering toward snap election

Enjoying a sudden spike in the polls, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is widely reported to be on the verge of calling a snap election. Tomorrow's budget — a one-day affair to be followed by a scheduled recess — will set the clock ticking.

Thursday's 'partial budget' expected to be followed by quick recess, April election

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau take press questions on their new economic policy in October. Quebec has underperformed the broader Canadian economy this year, and the PQ announced $2 billion in stimulus spending and a continued deficit for these next two years. (REUTERS)

Clearly, the only prospect of relief from the current state of the perpetual election campaign in Quebec is the prospect of an actual one. And with tomorrow's quick-hit provincial budget that call seems to be veering ever closer.

A CROP poll in La Presse on Tuesday shows Pauline Marois's Parti Québécois in clear majority territory.

They've gained five percentage points in voter intention in the last month alone, and are now running at 40 per cent popularity.

What's more, Marois stands head and shoulders above her main opponents as the preferred candidate for premier.

Granted, it is still iffy territory since the gains are made mostly from undecided voters and not nabbed from the opposition. But, if the premier's popularity is any indication, the PQ looks to be finding itself on more solid ground.

According to CROP vice-president Youri Rivest, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard "has not been able to define himself," his numbers are down for two consecutive months now.

Meanwhile, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault has slipped two points. He's holding steady in third place, but he's far from the spoiler he once was.

In power for just under a year and a half, the PQ has been waiting for this moment, and there have been more than a few indications lately that the election game plan is already in place.

The play, however, is still tricky and starts tomorrow when Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau is to present his second budget at 4 p.m. — which is essentially the eleventh hour before Quebec's National Assembly is to recess for two weeks.

The recess means the opposition won't get a daily legislative platform to probe the PQ on its budget deficit and assumptions.

And Marois would use the hiatus to call a snap election, as long as she is convinced a majority is in sight.

The move isn't without precedent. In 2003, then-premier Bernard Landry called an election the day after his finance minister at the time, Pauline Marois, presented her budget, and before the opposition could respond.

But there's a cautionary tale there: the PQ lost that election to Jean Charest's Liberals, and after all the counting a $4-billion shortfall was found in Marois's numbers.

A partial budget?

Adding to the current drama, Marceau has refused to confirm or deny the speculation that this will be a partial budget, basically an accounting of the province's public finances devoid of any specifics as to what moneys go to what ministries, and what is being set for future spending.

Marceau simply claims that this budget will be "responsible," following that up with a paternalistic "this is the budget Quebecers need. You'll see."

Quebec's new Liberal leader, Philippe Couillard hasn't yet 'defined himself,' pollsters say. Not having a budget debate won't help. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

That lack of answers — and the sleight-of-hand timing — has the two opposition parties crying foul, denouncing what they see as a calculated move to avoid debating the province's economic woes before recess, or worse, before an election call.

But here is where the play gets tricky, and requires a bit of background.

In November, Marceau laid out the state of Quebec's public finances and took the opportunity to break the PQ's election promise to balance the books.

At the time, both the CAQ and the Liberals swore to bring down the government if it tried to table a budget based on these numbers — a legitimate move in a minority parliament even though Quebec has a newly-passed fixed-date election law.

But that opposition tough-talk left Marois claiming the right to channel her inner Stephen Harper and break her own fixed-date law, and call an election whenever she wants.

Latest speculation has her asking the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature as early as March 5 for an election in early April.

It's all a little messy, riven with ifs and thens, and has the feel of people making it up as they go. And yet, it seems to be working.

For now, what we know is that one poll signals a possible majority for the PQ, that at least the semblance of a budget will be tabled tomorrow, and that momentum for an election call is strong enough that there may be no turning back.

We also know that the two main opposition parties, though not entirely unprepared, have spent the last several months tying themselves in knots over the PQ's proposed secular charter and, as a result, haven't been getting much traction on their own particular issues and strengths.

All of which points to one last thing that has also become clear: for all its shortfalls on policy — and budgeting — the PQ has certainly shown itself, at least so far, to have the upper hand when it comes to strategy.

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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