The Quebec government is losing the battle to bring down the province’s hefty debt, with Finance Minister Monique-Jérôme Forget acknowledging yesterday that it will continue to rise.
The minister refused to give figures, but said they will be unveiled when the province tables its budget on May 24.
As of March 31, Quebec’s debt, according to Ministry of Finance figures, was $122.4-billion, the highest among the provinces and higher than what the government projected the previous year. The figure doesn’t include a debt of more than $2-billion for the province’s hospitals and universities as well as payments that were deferred to future years, a recent provincial auditor’s report said.
Major capital works projects, including repairs to roads and bridges after the collapse last fall of an overpass in Laval that killed five people, will increase the debt even more next year.
"Because of the construction of infrastructures ... that we have the responsibility to undertake, it will be necessary to carry additional debt," Ms. Forget said in the National Assembly yesterday. "What we have to do is control the debt and extend the cost over a period of time that will be equitable for the current generation and for generations to come."
The Action Démocratique du Québec, which received its baptism of fire yesterday as the Official Opposition in the National Assembly, said the Liberal government continues to doctor the numbers and is presenting an inaccurate picture of the province’s finances.
"The provincial auditor has been asking the government for some time to present an accurate picture of the province’s public finances and to stop disguising the reality," ADQ finance critic Gilles Taillon said in the National Assembly.
In his response yesterday to Premier Jean Charest’s inaugural speech on Wednesday, ADQ Leader Mario Dumont stressed the need to tackle the debt and stop relying on the federal government for funds.
"We have to be less dependent on equalization payments and gain more autonomy," Mr. Dumont said.
He accused Mr. Charest of "hijacking" the $750-million in additional funding for Quebec that was announced in the last federal budget as part of the solution to the fiscal imbalance. Quebec had demanded the money for health and education, but Mr. Charest announced in the last days of the March 26 election campaign that the money would be used to cut income taxes.
"In all future negotiations with Ottawa, Quebec will now be in a position of weakness," Mr. Dumont said, adding that the rest of Canada will have difficulty believing Mr. Charest when he wants more federal funds for social programs.
It was a historic day for the ADQ. As Official Opposition, its 41 members could now impose its agenda during daily Question Period and dictate the course of the debate in the National Assembly.
However, the Parti Québécois, reduced to third-party status with 36 members, refused to relinquish the authority it has exercised for more than 30 years. Speaker Michel Bissonnet set a precedent by acceding to the PQ’s demands to control about 40 per cent of the questions put to the government.
Never before has a Quebec minority government had to face two opposition parties in almost equal force. New rules are being adopted on the fly to strike the right balance.