Liberals praise Couillard and “budgetary rigor”

Between a tribute to Prime Minister Philippe Couillard and a commitment to quickly regain budgetary balance, “budgetary rigor” was at the heart of the convention of the Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ), which takes place this weekend in Bromont.

The Quebec Liberals wanted to contrast with the Legault government “which is throwing money left and right” and which is “incapable of difficult choices.”

This great ode to “budgetary rigor” culminated in a tribute to the mandate of Philippe Couillard, who led Quebec between 2014 and 2018.

All the still living former leaders of the PLQ took part, in addition to numerous ex-elected officials, from Régis Labeaume to the former French president François Hollande. Mr. Couillard’s legacies in the environment, but also in transportation, were highlighted.

On numerous occasions, speakers praised the “courage” of the former Liberal leader, who led an exercise in “budgetary rigor” during the first half of his mandate.

Between 2014 and 2016, Mr. Couillard seriously limited the growth of state spending and redressed Quebec’s difficult financial situation, the Liberals recalled. But on the other hand, he attracted harsh criticism, when he was accused of subjecting public services to “austerity”.

“He can boast of having a credit rating higher than that of Ontario [et] a surplus of eight billion to his successor, underlined Jean Charest. Something that we will not see again in the foreseeable future of Quebec…”

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In the photo, we see Philippe Couillard (foreground), and former prime ministers Daniel Johnson and Jean Charest. (Stéphane Champagne/La Voix de l’Est)

“We were able to put Quebec back on track,” celebrated the interim leader of the party, Marc Tanguay. Your government is a Source of inspiration for fellow deputies in the National Assembly.”

During his speech, Philippe Couillard recalled that this exercise, which earned him all kinds of criticism, was “not a sterile idea for aligning figures”, but rather a way to “free up some room for maneuver”. And with eight billion in surplus when he left power, “I think we can say mission accomplished,” he remarked.

A “difficult” but necessary rigor

Insisting on sound management of public finances as a fundamental value of the party, PLQ activists adopted a resolution inviting the party to repeat the “rigor” of the Couillard government if they regain power.

The promised exercise will require “difficult decisions” and “sacrifices”, liberal tenors agree. But it is “necessary” because “the credit card is full”.

“The Liberal Party is always the party of rigor and good management of public finances,” insisted the party’s parliamentary leader, Monsef Derajji. What we are going to promise Quebecers is that the Liberal Party will take the state of public finances seriously.”

“We must act on the income column […] but above all ensure budgetary rigor.”

— Monsef Derraji, Liberal MP for Nelligan and Parliamentary Leader

“I would tell you that there is some housekeeping to be done,” MP André Fortin also opined, after mocking the CAQ government’s management of public funds. “Making difficult decisions necessarily involves making sacrifices,” he agreed, before qualifying. But that doesn’t stop us from investing in the future.”

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Liberal MP André Fortin agrees that “budgetary rigor” will come with “sacrifices.” But there is no question of talking about austerity. (Edouard Plante-Fréchette/Archives La Presse)

The interim leader of the PLQ, Marc Tanguay, is of the same opinion. He “does not forgive Francois Legault from us [avoir fait] run a historic deficit of 11 billion” without a plan to return to budget balance. “We will see at the dawn of the next elections […] the extent of the damage.”

“Rigour, I think that’s the key word,” said the Montreal elected official in the press scrum. Mr. Tanguay, however, categorically refused the label of austerity, attached to his party between 2014 and 2016.

Rigor and services, like under Couillard

The leaders of the Liberal Party, however, want to be reassuring. They assure that despite the “sacrifices”, services to the population will be spared, or even improved. As was the case under Philippe Couillard, they insist.

The framework principle voted on at the congress on Saturday also provides that the Liberals’ plan to return to a balanced budget “preserves essential services […] particularly in education and health.”

“Difficult decisions necessarily involve sacrifices. But that does not prevent us from investing in the future,” insisted André Fortin, saying he was “proud” of the record of the last Liberal government. “I remind you of the state in which Philippe Couillard took Quebec. There was a huge amount of work to be done.”

>>>During the first two years of his mandate, Liberal Prime Minister Philippe Couillard imposed tight controls on the growth of state spending, which was often described as austerity.>>>

During the first two years of his mandate, Liberal Prime Minister Philippe Couillard imposed tight controls on the growth of state spending, which was often described as austerity. (Mathieu Belanger/Canadian Press Archives)

“We created wealth and managed public finances well,” added Monsef Derraji. Public services, end of 2018 [en comparaison] as of today, were in a much better position, he assured, pointing in particular to the state of the health network.

“Look at the waiting time in the emergency room and access to the first line [en santé]. No one today is going to tell me that access to the front line has improved with François Legault.

“I don’t think that Quebecers today will misanalyze what Mr. Couillard did.”

— Monsef Derraji, Liberal MP for Nelligan and Parliamentary Leader

The main person concerned did not want to analyze Quebecers’ reading of his legacy, particularly whether his economic actions had been treated unfairly.

“But I would say the following: There was a lot of agitation in 2018 about so-called austerity […] Yes, there was a restriction of spending for a short period, but with a huge benefit,” he commented. But in politics, gratitude or justice are rather elusive principles.”

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