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Couillard cuts social programs, warns of tough times ahead for Quebec

Quebec's Premier Philippe Couillard shakes the hand of the Minister of Finance Carlos Leitao after the inaugural speech at the National Assembly in Quebec City, May 21, 2014.

MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS

In his first address to the National Assembly as Premier, Philippe Couillard warned tough times are ahead as Quebec seeks to put its financial house in order. In the end, the sacrifice will pay off though with more jobs and lower taxes, he promised.

For the first time since the April 7 vote, Mr. Couillard outlined his priorities in delivering what he called "the most transparent government in the history of Quebec."

Mr. Couillard announced the end of generous and costly social programs. He said one permanent commission will be set up to evaluate the necessity of existing programs and another will review corporate tax credits and seek ways to reduce income taxes.

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"Help to businesses needs to be revamped. We devote considerable amounts but clearly don't get the desired result," Mr. Couillard said. "We want our tax system to be more advantageous to workers … Our objective is clear and that is to reduce the tax burden on middle-class families."

Mr. Couillard appeared determined to avoid the mistakes made by his Liberal predecessor, Jean Charest, by promising to protect the most vulnerable against the drastic cuts needed to balance the budget by the end of the 2015-2016 fiscal year – and avoid social unrest.

Mr. Couillard also reassured religious groups shaken by the former Parti Québécois government's proposed secular charter that minority rights will be protected when the Liberals table a new bill on religious accommodations.

"Our government strongly believes that diversity is not a threat but an asset," Mr. Couillard said to a resounding applause by Liberals.

Between now and the next election in October, 2018, Mr. Couillard promised to create 250,000 jobs, attract private investments to boost mining development and launch a maritime development strategy. "We will return to building and repairing ships in Quebec," the Premier said.

The first order of business will be the adoption of the end-of-life bill that died on the order paper when the election was called in March. Despite opposition from groups fighting the legislation that will allow euthanasia under strict conditions for certain terminally ill adult patients, Mr. Couillard said no further debate was needed and the bill will be out to a vote soon.

Also, a vote is coming on a bill creating an inspector-general in Montreal to oversee the awarding of municipal contracts to avoid collusion and corruption.

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To maintain social peace throughout the implementation of austerity measures, Mr. Couillard will need to avoid a confrontation with municipal workers. Several thousand protested in front of the National Assembly, the biggest demonstration there since 2003 when Mr. Charest introduced unpopular cost-cutting measures.

Mr. Couillard also reiterated his federalist convictions arguing that Quebec will once again play a leadership role in the Canada through "constructive" dialogue. "Quebec's voice will be heard," Mr. Couillard said.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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