01/31/2013 06:48 EST | Updated 04/02/2013 05:12 EDT

PQ wants to erase the deficit, to help achieve independence

ESTEREL, Que. - The Parti Quebecois government says it has to tightly control the province's finances — not just to balance the budget, or please the markets, but to prove it can run a country.

Treasury Board President Stephane Bedard said Thursday that if the PQ wants Quebec to be independent, it has to show it can handle the ups and downs of the economy.

That message comes after the new government took flak from the business community in its early days. More recently, Premier Pauline Marois admitted that she heard concerns from business people while she visited Europe.

Now, with a PQ convention coming up, party brass are casting fiscal sobriety in terms that might be more appealing to the grassroots: as a means to Quebec independence.

"For people who want to make a country, it's important to show Quebecers that we're capable of propping ourselves up and that we don't need others," Bedard said during a caucus retreat.

"I think that's the least we can do, as sovereigntists. It's maybe one of the ways to convince those Quebecers who still doubt (independence)."

The PQ insists it was handed a fiscal mess when it took power after the Sept. 4 election and has acted aggressively to bring costs under control.

Bedard said the government was acting responsibly by implementing cuts to university funding, research money and other programs.

He said the previous Liberal government "pretended there was no problem" and that future generations would pay the price.

Health Minister Rejean Hebert bluntly acknowledged the $10 million in cuts to health research would have an impact.

"It has a long-term impact on people's health," he said Thursday, although he insisted that won't be felt in the short- and medium term.

"In the short term, we don't use research funds to improve patient care. I want to assure you that patient care will not be affected by the cuts."

The PQ government promises to erase the heavily indebted province's $3.3 billion deficit by next year.