In a bid to turn her party's fortunes around in the last days of the campaign, Pauline Marois has pulled out a classic election promise and pledged to cut taxes should the Parti Québécois win the April 7 vote.
Thursday's announcement that the PQ would reduce personal-income and corporate payroll taxes appears designed to build support among middle-class francophone voters, which the party will need if it hopes to win several hotly contested ridings and stay in power.
Public-opinion polls this week put the PQ in second place behind the Liberals, and an internal PQ poll released to The Globe and Mail and La Presse shows the party trailing by four points. The pollster has been conducting surveys daily since the campaign began, and said the gap between the parties has shrunk in recent days.
When a radio interviewer in Trois-Rivières suggested to Ms. Marois on Thursday that the campaign has dragged on, Ms. Marois replied that she feels as if she is just starting to get her message out and could use more time.
"I'd take another week," she said, her voice cracking from a cold. "I find we didn't get a lot of time to get our promises out. There were always debates on other matters. We didn't really get to see the platforms of each party. We're starting to see them more."
The PQ did not start out with tax cuts in its platform, or in its budget tabled in February, two weeks before the election was called. The new promise came at a business lunch.
"We want to reduce taxes paid by companies. … And I would say the same goes for income taxes," Ms. Marois said to 400 people at an event with Michel Leblanc, president of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal. "But we need to find new resources in order to do it."
When reporters asked why she was promising to cut taxes so late in the campaign, Ms. Marois replied: "The Chamber of Commerce asked me the question. Not a lot of people have asked it before."
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard told supporters in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, south of Montreal, the promise stretches credulity. "Does anyone really believe she's going to cut taxes?" he said, to a cry of "Non!" from partisans.
In the 2007 election campaign, Jean Charest promised a $700-million income-tax cut with five days to go.
But unlike Ms. Marois' promise, the Charest pledge had an immediate source of funding: a $700-million boost in equalization payments from Ottawa announced earlier in the campaign.
Mr. Charest's opponents also said Quebeckers would never get the cut. The Liberals salvaged a minority victory and did cut taxes after a long game of brinksmanship with the opposition. Mr. Charest then won a majority in 2008.
When the PQ budget was tabled, Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said surpluses generated once the zero deficit target was reached at the end of the 2015-2016 fiscal year would go to reducing the province's debt.
Ms. Marois said it was premature to project by how much taxes would be reduced. The PQ leader said it would depend on the success of her industrial policy aimed at attracting new investments and jobs. The more wealth the province can generate, the better the chances of cutting taxes, she explained.
"We also have to make sure that we continue to serve Quebeckers well, and therefore, once we reach a balanced budget, once we have surpluses, half of it could be used to cut taxes and the other half to maintain and improve services," Ms. Marois told reporters after the luncheon.
A PQ government, she insisted, would keep spending under control and use funds from increased mining royalties and the taxes on alcohol and tobacco to reduce the province' debt.
According to Quebec government figures, the province's gross debt was $191.7-billion as of March 31, 2013. The net debt, which subtracts the value of financial and other assets, was at $175.4-billion for the same period.
The internal poll, conducted by PQ pollster and consultant Pierre-Alain Cotnoir between March 31 and April 2, surveyed 1001 telephone respondents and showed the Liberals leading with 35 per cent, ahead of the PQ at 31 per cent, the Coalition Avenir Québec at 22 per cent and Quebec Solidaire at 8 per cent. Mr. Cotnoir said a poll of this size has a margin of error of about 3 per cent.
The PQ poll showed the party leading among francophone voters with 37 per cent and the Liberals and CAQ tied at 26 per cent with QS at 9 per cent.
The poll also showed the anglophone vote massively rallying behind the Liberals at 80 per cent, as was the case for allophones at 79 per cent.