While Quebec still reverberated with the discussion of the Parti Québécois’ White Paper on language—a debate which promised to rage for weeks—indications were growing that René Lévesque’s government is having to water down some of its election promises, and modify its style. In fact, five months after being elected, it began to show signs of behaving—at least in economic matters—more like any other provincial government than like one made up of the reformers who had campaigned for office in the fall. Although eventual independence remained a clearly defined objective, there were a number of embarrassing examples of behavior for which the PQ, while in opposition, had bitterly criticized the Liberals.
Some were trivial incidents which brought shamefaced grins and shrugs to government faces. In the fall, the PQ had strongly criticized the Liberals for going outside the civil service to use Quebec City lawyer Richard Drouin as a negotiator during various public service strikes. However, during the Quebec Provincial Police strike just before Easter, the provincial negotiator turned out to be none other than the same Drouin. Said Lévesque, with a slightly sheepish grin: “He was involved, and there was no reason to take him off it.” Similarly, while in opposition, the Parti Québécois had bitterly attacked the absenteeism of Liberal ministers during the regular Friday morning question period in the Assembly. But House Leader Robert Burns was forced to recite the identical reply the Liberals had given so often—that ministers were required elsewhere—when only four cabinet ministers showed up one Friday morning recently.
The realities of power in a debt-ridden province came home most vividly with Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau’s first budget. Although written with the uncommon grace and wit of a Galbraith, (speaking of “the nasty tendency” of unemployment insurance and welfare payments to exceed the minimum wage, Parizeau quipped “you can’t blame the taxpayer for knowing how to count”) the style merely sweetened a bitter pill for the most highly taxed citizens in the country. The costly promises were postponed, borrowing was reduced, and the taxpayers were hit with higher license fees, increased sales tax on restaurant meals and, perhaps toughest of all, an 8% sales tax on children’s shoes and clothes.
In particular, the Liberals’ refusal to in-
dex income tax exemptions to cost of living increases, harshly criticized by the PQ in opposition, was continued. Said Parizeau: “Look, we haven’t got the money.” Former Liberal finance minister Raymond Garneau did not let it pass lightly, charging that: “When these people were in opposition, they criticized us constantly. I can still hear the nasal voice of the member from Sauvé (now Minister of Education Jacques-Yvan Morin) talking about the indexation of income tax exemptions. How (not having it) was a scandal. How the Quebec taxpayers were affected.”
Saying “the road to independence needs sound Financing,” Parizeau presented an extremely conservative budget, and succeeded in getting applause where he obviously needed it most: on Wall Street. Describing the budget as restrained and disciplined, traders were obviously pleased.
Then, a few days later, Consumer Affairs Minister Lise Payette presented the government’s plans for automobile insurance. Obviously trying to avoid both the high costs and the battles with the insurance industry incurred by Manitoba and British Columbia, the plan leaves property
damage in the hands of the private insurance companies, while setting up a staterun no-fault plan for personal injuries. The plan is ingenious, and shows an admirable sense of priority in placing people ahead of bumpers, but it will only reduce by 8% the cost of premiums for Quebeckers, who will still pay more for car insurance than any other province. The successive acts of the PQ administration, as it wrestled with the problems of austerity, have produced the
first signs of a slight chill in what has been until now a warm and unblemished honey-
moon between the new government, the public and the press. GRAHAM FRASER
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