In Brief: Canadian Health Care Consensus Group signatory Claude Castonguay has been handed an opportunity to redefine Quebec’s health care system. In its provincial budget, the Quebec government announced Castonguay as head of a task force to study changes to be made to the Canada Health Act.

By Les Perreaux

QUEBEC — Quebec’s Liberal government delivered a billion-dollar tax cut four years late on Thursday, gambling the opposition parties lack the political spine to vote down the budget and trigger an election.

Finance Minister Monique Jerome-Forget announced $950 million in income tax cuts across all income levels and nearly $300 million in other tax-saving measures.

The Liberals will need the support of at least one of the opposition parties to pass the budget — and cling to power — in a vote expected in early June.

The Action democratique du Quebec immediately repeated a vow to vote against the budget, leaving the separatist Parti Quebecois in control of the future of the fragile minority government.

“The decision is not made right now and will be made in caucus with all of us,” said PQ finance critic Francois Legault.

“It’s an irresponsible budget.”

The PQ is in a precarious position since finishing third in the March election, with no permanent leader, no money and no platform.

Jerome-Forget said the opposition parties will face the wrath of the people if they trigger an election just a couple of months after the most recent vote.

“The two parties can overthrow the government for all kinds of reasons, including the budget,” Jerome-Forget told reporters.

“I don’t know if it will be seen particularly well to relaunch ourselves into an election campaign.
“I won’t bet (on opposition support), but I’m not a betting person.”

The tax cut follows an annual promise Premier Jean Charest first made — and failed to deliver — in 2003.

A couple with two children and a family income of $75,000 per year will save $984 with the new measures.

Jerome-Forget used the budget to launch a task force to study new ways of funding the health system, the increasing role the private sector should play and the relevance of the Canada Health Act.

“I think it’s time to re-examine this law that hinders innovation, in my opinion,” Jerome-Forget said.
The government has asked Claude Castonguay, the architect of Quebec’s public health system, to chair the task force.

“Just what we need, another committee,” said Legault, who rattled off a handful of recent health care commissions at the federal and provincial levels.

Castonguay, who has worked for insurance companies, is known for favouring user fees and a bigger place for private interests in the health system.

Health Minister Philippe Couillard has said he is against user fees, but doesn’t want to discourage Castonguay from reaching any conclusion.

Lise Denis, spokeswoman for the Quebec association of health establishments, said the system needs action, not more study.

“We don’t need two years of study,” she said. “All of the data is there. What we finally need — finally — is a plan to move ahead, action.”

Quebec’s income tax cuts take effect Jan. 1. They will leave the province’s taxpayers in the middle of the pack compared to the burden carried by Canadians in other provinces.

Gilles Taillon, the Action democratique finance critic, said cuts to service fees and debt repayment should have been the first priority.

“We’re always interested in tax cuts, we like tax cuts, but only if there is the room to manoeuvre,” said Taillon.

“There is no room to manoeuvre so it’s a tax on future generations. There is nothing in that budget that would allow us to support it.”

Until recently, Taillon was the head of a business lobby group that made annual pleas for tax cuts.
Quebecers were the second most-taxed Canadians in 2003. By 2008, they’ll be sixth on the list of most heavily taxed provinces.

The cuts will be funded, in part, from nearly $700 million in new federal money that was announced in the final days of the spring Quebec election campaign.

The ADQ and PQ panned the cuts as a desperate move by Charest.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government were condemned for interfering in the Quebec election.