When he first became Quebec premier in 1970 at 36, Robert Bourassa says that he entered office with a long list of priorities that included job creation and expansion of government services. In its first years in office, Bourassa’s government instituted a series of measures that included expansion of the province’s medicare program, the creation of a network of social service centres across Quebec and free legal services to the poor. But since Dec. 2, when Bourassa’s Liberals swept back into power for the first time since 1976, they faced a vastly changed economic and political reality that has forced his government to sharply trim government spending. When he took office 16 years ago, noted Bourassa, “We had the need and the finances to do things that government had not done before. That is no longer the case.”
As a result, Bourassa in his first 100 days in office has introduced a decidedly more frugal fiscal style in Quebec City. According to government spending estimates released last week, the province plans to trim $1.01 billion from its expenditures this year to keep its total spending to $28.7 billion. The cuts, which will affect government programs ranging from highway construction to grants for higher education, are aimed at reducing Quebec’s forecast annual deficit to $3 billion from $4.5 billion so that the province’s present AA-minus credit rating is not endangered. But in order to meet that goal, Bourassa’s finance minister, Gérard Lévesque, will have to find another $500 million—either by imposing new taxes on hard-pressed Quebecers or by further cutting services when the budget is presented later this month.
In fact, after 2Vfc decades of almost continuous government growth in Quebec, the overriding theme of Bourassa’s new government, since it defeated the Parti Québécois under Pierre Marc Johnson four months ago, has been its intention to reduce the role of the state. Bourassa says that he still hopes to see the publicly owned HydroQuébec initiate a $25-billion expansion of the huge James Bay hydroelectric complex. But he added in an interview that he also believes that “it is time to
leave the business of private business up to businessmen.” One of Bourassa’s first acts as premier was to establish a special advisory committee on deregulation aimed at eliminating some of the 2,000 provincial regulations that currently affect everything from milk pasteurization to French-language protection.
The government has also sold off an unprofitable, provincially owned sugar refinery and established a committee chaired by Privatization Minister Pierre Fortier to determine which of the government’s 14 other industrial and commercial Crown corporations could be sold off. As well, the cuts announced last week by Treasury Board President Paul Gobeil will touch nearly every area of the government. The programs
eliminated included a $9.6-million job placement service that duplicated federal services, while a student loan program was trimmed by $24.3 million, and operations of the medicare program will be tightened to yield a saving of $30 million.
As well, Bourassa acknowledges that because the province’s finances are in far worse shape than he originally thought, he will likely have to abandon some of the $450 million in campaign pledges.
Despite that, early indications are that Bourassa’s honeymoon with the voters has not ended. A poll conducted by the respected SORECOM firm in late February showed that 51 per cent of respondents approve of the job he has been doing so far as premier, and 61 per cent support
the party. Indeed, many members of the government say that voters now regard tough economic measures as a necessity. Said Reed Scowen, parliamentary secretary and economic adviser to Bourassa: “The middle-class taxpayer is tired of paying for services he does not want or use.”
At the same time, the Liberals have benefited from continuing disarray within the opposition PQ. With only 23 of the legislature’s 122 seats, the party that René Lévesque kept in office for a decade does not even have enough members for a full shadow cabinet to oppose the government’s 28 cabinet ministers. Party members are still debating the issue of whether to drop the PQ’s basic position in favor of Quebec sovereignty. While that subject remains unsettled, the party is unlikely to be effective against the resurgent Liberals. Declared one Péquiste: “We cannot tell them what to do until we know where we are going ourselves.”
But some opposition politicians who remember Bourassa’s earlier period in office say that they are now seeing a new and different aspect of his political character. In contrast to the weak and vacillating image that he had during his years in office from 1970 to 1976, he has clearly established his control over the present government. Cabinet ministers say that one measure of Bourassa’s confidence is his willingness now to allow them full responsibility for day-to-day decisions. “His first time around, there was a feeling that he did not trust people and could be bullied and controlled by his advisers,” said Energy Minister John Ciaccia, who served under Bourassa as a member of the national assembly from 1973 to 1976. “Nothing could be further from the truth this time,” he added.
In the meantime, Bourassa and other Liberals say that the effort to scale down government is both a necessary and logical consequence of the growth of government in Quebec that began with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. They add that developments over the past 25 years, including French-first language legislation and the growth of Quebec government, business and educational institutions, have given francophone Quebecers confidence in themselves. As Pierre Fortier commented: “We can no longer afford big government, but we no longer need it. All Quebecers, including francophones, are now ready to compete anywhere, against anyone.” Still, with tax increases almost certain in next month’s budget, many Quebecers may regard that as an accurate but unwelcome revelation.
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