MONTREAL - With just days left in the Quebec election campaign and her Parti Quebecois apparently struggling in opinion polls, Pauline Marois came out with a surprising promise on Thursday: future income-tax cuts.
The goodies would kick in only after the province balances its budget, which the PQ has said will occur in 2015-16.
In an exchange with Michel Leblanc, head of the Montreal Board of Trade, Marois said a re-elected PQ government would cut business taxes.
She then told reporters later the promise would also extend to individual taxpayers.
Asked why she waited until Day 30 of the campaign to mention the commitment, Marois replied: "Not a lot of people asked me (about tax cuts)."
"The board of trade asked me the question."
Marois was short on details about the cuts, which she surely hopes will help the PQ regain some momentum before Monday's vote.
"The middle class is heavily taxed," she said. "We know that, and we want to alleviate some of that burden."
In a campaign dominated by talk of corruption, integrity and the secular charter, there had been no inkling of any tax-relief announcements since the election being called March 5.
The surprise announcement was brushed off by both of her main rivals. Coalition Leader Francois Legault called it improvisation and a desperate move. Perceived front-runner, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, dismissed her pledge as a political play.
"The last time I heard Madame Marois talk about taxes was when she scared everyone with retroactive tax hikes after they formed a government," Couillard told a gathering in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, south of Montreal.
"Is there anyone here who believes her?," the Liberal leader asked.
The response from the partisan crowd was a collective:"No."
"Come on!" Couillard added in a further jab at Marois's announcement.
While the PQ has promised a balanced budget in 2015-2016, Quebec's interim auditor general said recently the government was being very optimistic if it thought it could achieve it within a few years.
The PQ campaigned in 2012 on a promise to balance the budget in 2013-2014, the fiscal year which ended just a few days ago, on March 31. It eventually put off the objective after saying government revenues were way lower than anticipated.
Marois said one-half of any future budget surpluses could be used for tax cuts and one-half for improvements in services.
Earlier on Thursday, Couillard predicted his opponents would pay at the polls for what he termed their insult-laden campaigns.
Couillard accused Marois of taking the low road on the campaign trail and said voters are starting to tune out because of the barbs.
Couillard took his main rival to task over comments she made Wednesday about him and accused fraudster Arthur Porter.
Through an intermediary, Porter voiced his support for the Liberal leader from a Panamanian jail cell where he is awaiting a decision on extradition to Canada on fraud charges. In brief interview posted online, Porter said he still considers Couillard a friend.
Asked about Porter's comments, Marois described the two men as "birds of a feather."
Couillard, who has been fending off campaign attacks for his past dealings with Porter, clearly has had enough with the attacks.
"It's such a mediocre way to talk about someone else," he said as he campaigned in Sherbrooke ahead of a blitz of several other towns.
"Quebecers judge people. When you are on a 33-day campaign, you're always in front of people ...so when you use that tone, when you use those words, in my opinion, you send a really negative impression to people."
Porter is a former hospital administrator who is facing fraud charges in Canada stemming from the awarding of the McGill University superhospital contract. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Porter first struck up a friendship with Couillard when the latter served as health minister in Jean Charest's Liberal government.
The two set up a company together in 2010, but the Liberal leader has said no business was ever conducted and that there were no financial statements before the firm dissolved in 2012.
During the campaign, Couillard released official documents about the dealings to try to stem the attacks.
He said Thursday the message being sent by Marois and the PQ is they are "ready to try anything, including insults, disparaging remarks and guilt by association."
"It would be so easy for me to reply in the same tone, but I will not do it," he said.
It hasn't been easy, Couillard admitted. He said he has had to bite his tongue during the acrimonious campaign.
"I think I built with patience, and sometimes with a certain degree of pain, to answer insult, not by insult, but by respect, keeping a respectful tone," Couillard told reporters.
"This gives me, I believe, the credibility the day after the election to rally Quebecers."
Couillard said Quebecers don't want to end up back at the polls in another 18 months in the event of a second consecutive minority government.
"Let's give an election holiday for four years to Quebecers," he said.
"I think we need a majority government. And we need a Liberal majority because we need a government that's going to be focused on employment, the economy, better education and better health care."
Legault warned, meanwhile, that the election of a Liberal government would be a serious blow to Quebec's finances and could lead to a drop in the province's credit rating.
He continued to talk up his economic plan and has vowed to do until the end of the campaign. All the while, he kept his attack on the Liberals for their economic plan for being unrealistic.
"We have to remember what Mr. Charest and the Liberals did in nine years and, right now, I don't see one proposal from Mr. Couillard different from Mr. Charest's program," Legault said in Quebec City.
The Coalition leader has frequently talked about breaking the two-party cycle that has existed in Quebec for 40 years. Various polls suggest the Liberals will return to power.
If it comes to pass, Legault believes fear will have played a role.
"I think that some people were really afraid about a referendum ... especially the Anglophones," Legault said. "They are scared and Mr.Couillard took benefit of that for three weeks."
— with files from Alexandre Robillard in Montreal, Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City and Martin Ouellet in Sherbrooke and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
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