Opposition parties threaten to topple PQ government on inaugural speech

QUEBEC - The Parti Quebecois delivered a relatively mild inaugural speech but it wasn't enough to gain the support of the provincial legislature, as opposition parties Wednesday raised the prospect of immediately toppling the minority government.

QUEBEC – The Parti Quebecois delivered a relatively mild inaugural speech but it wasn’t enough to gain the support of the provincial legislature, as opposition parties Wednesday raised the prospect of immediately toppling the minority government.

No sooner had Premier Pauline Marois delivered her opening address — a confidence matter — than the two biggest opposition parties signalled that they would vote against it.

That opened the door to at least four potential outcomes: A compromise with one opposition party to keep the PQ minority afloat. A few opposition abstentions during the vote. A chance for the Opposition Liberals, who are currently leaderless, to seek the confidence of the legislature. And a snap election.

As of late Wednesday evening, the Liberals’ interim leader, Jean-Marc Fournier, was categorical: “We cannot support this inaugural speech.” A spokesman for the third party, Francois Legault’s Coalition, was equally adamant: “We will vote against,” said Jean-Francois Del Torchio.

A spokeswoman for the premier said it would be “completely irresponsible” for opposition parties to risk triggering an election less than two months after the last one.

In any case, the showdown illustrated the historic challenge the PQ faces in imposing its agenda with a minority government — something the pro-independence party has never had to do. It held solid majorities the two previous times it came to office.

The new government even appeared to go out of its way to downplay the polarizing issues of independence, language and identity.

Those emotionally charged issues that occupied centre stage in the recent election were shoved toward the background in Marois’ speech.

Her one-hour address did not include a single reference to an independence referendum or to the PQ’s campaign promise to let citizens force plebiscites with petitions, as happens in numerous U.S. states.

In fact, Marois included more references to her goal of creating a “Charter of Wood” — a plan to promote the use of Quebec forestry products in building projects — than to the idea of holding a vote to make Quebec a country.

Other hot-button identity issues received similarly scant prominence.

Marois promised public consultations before proceeding with two other controversial promises: the “Charter of Secularism” that would limit religious headwear in public institutions, and the proposed Quebec citizenship that would make future immigrants pass a French test to run for public office.

“These fundamental proposals must benefit from the greatest possible amount of public support,” Marois said in her policy-setting speech.

“The government has therefore decided to launch consultations to achieve a balance.”

Marois did promise to proceed with a new language law but was vague on specifics and said she would go only as far as her minority government status would allow.

The premier delivered her throne speech eight weeks after being elected with a razor-thin minority — the first time in its history that the PQ has ever had to try governing without controlling the legislature.

In past incarnations, in 1976 and 1994, PQ governments entered office with mighty majorities and bold promises to hold votes on independence.

This time, the PQ’s top priority is far less controversial.

Marois said her first weeks in office will be dedicated to fighting corruption, in the wake of political scandals that have rocked the province. She said she will not wait for an ongoing inquiry to offer its conclusions and will act immediately on the anti-corruption front.

A PQ government’s first piece of business — Bill 1 — would be an anti-corruption plan. It would require companies to prove that they have a clean track record in order to win contracts at the provincial or municipal level. Marois said she hoped to pass the bill before the holidays.

The new government also announced plans to:

—Set fixed election dates.

—Set limits on the number of terms a Quebec premier can serve.

—Propose a three-term limit for mayors of municipalities with more than 5,000 residents, after consulting with municipal officials and opposition parties.

—Create a new transport agency, with qualified engineers, to monitor public works projects.

—Reduce the limit on political donations to $100, from the current $1,000.

Marois made a reference to the PQ’s founding leader who, in the 1970s, created what was then Canada’s toughest-ever political financing law and banned corporate donations.

“Let’s be inspired by Rene Levesque. Let’s take the influence of money out of politics,” Marois said.

“The government will soon table a bill that will essentially create the public financing of political parties.”

A vote on the inaugural speech is expected in about 10 days, after 25 hours of debate in the legislative chamber.

Marois suggested her government would have four priorities, with the first being tackling corruption. The others were public finances and the economy; social solidarity; and identity and defending Quebec’s interest.

Marois made an announcement on federal-provincial relations: she said she would continue attending meetings of the Council of the Federation, the premiers’ forum created by her predecessor Jean Charest.

She promised a “constructive but firm” relationship with the federal government. She said she would demand a transfer of power and funds related to culture, and keep fighting to preserve Quebec’s data from the federal long-gun registry.

She concluded her speech with an ode to an independent Quebec.

Marois described the federal system as a waste of money burdened by two departments of finance, revenue, health, transport, the environment and revenue, along with two parliaments and a federal Senate.

She said Quebecers would rather control their own money instead of seeing it go to shipbuilding in the Maritimes and the auto industry in Ontario.

“What do we want to do with our taxes — finance celebrations of the War of 1812, and the monarchy, or finance our culture and education?” Marois asked rhetorically.

“Let’s create a new country, a country in our image, a country for all.”

Unlike some of her PQ predecessors, however, Marois offered little hint of how she planned to make that new country happen.

She did provide more details on her economic priorities.

There will be either a mini-budget, budget statement or perhaps even a full annual budget as early as this fall, Marois said.

A full budget tabled in 2012 could make it easier for the PQ minority to survive. The opposition Liberals will be in a leadership campaign until early next year and will be hard-pressed to provoke an election before then.

Marois promised a balanced budget by 2014 and said she would bring down Quebec’s debt-to-GDP ratio — the largest in Canada.

She also promised to increase mining royalty rates and promote economic development that is “modern, sustainable, responsible and unifying.”

She said she would create a committee of ministers and Crown corporation bosses that analyzes investment programs to ensure they meet three criteria: environmental responsibility, be export-friendly, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Marois promised other new government structures, including a secretariat of northern development. She also proposed a so-called “Charter of Wood” that will encourage the use of Quebec forestry products in buildings. She said she will encourage the construction of six-storey wood buildings.

Marois also promised to address the chronic backlogs in Quebec’s $7-a-day daycare program. She promised a daycare spot for every Quebec child within four years.

But the dominant theme in the speech was fighting corruption.

“Quebecers are a fundamentally honest people,” Marois said, referring to recent scandals.

“Let’s united to make the fall of 2012 an important moment in our history. Let’s allow our collective indignation transform itself into action, and help Quebec become once again one of the cleanest and most transparent nations in the world.

“That should be our aspiration.”

-With files from Alexandre Robillard in Quebec City and Alexander Panetta in Montreal