MONTREAL—In the isolated Laurentians town of Esterel, the who’s who of the Parti Quebecois started a two-day meeting on Thursday to plan out the next session of the National Assembly.

At PQ retreat, fiscal sobriety pitched as first step to independence

With parliamentarians due in Quebec City in two weeks, the PQ says has big plans to slash the province’s deficit and renew the fight against corruption.

After a tough sell in Scotland, Premier Pauline Marois wowed her PQ membership on Thursday. Surrounded by her caucus and cabinet, Marois stayed away from the media and set sights on the provincial deficit.

The 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. Marois admitted that she heard concerns from business leaders while she visited Europe.

Now, 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.

To reach that goal, Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau is looking at a tough target.

“Institutions, whether in the health sector or in the education sector are supposed—and I'm asking them—to reach the zero deficit target,” said Marceau.

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.

The government also plans to reform political party financing and create a provincial transport agency to replace Transport Quebec

The anti-corruption package stems from a desire by the PQ to be seen as the cleanest party around.

“What's happening before the Charbonneau Commission confirms that the fight against corruption must continue to be our first priority and it's going to be the case. Trust us,” said Minister for Democratic Institutions Bernard Drainville.

The government is also reviewing the way it does business in the wake of revelations from the province's corruption inquiry and police probes into bid-rigging.

Bedard says the government is examining how contracts are awarded in all sectors—not just in construction. Information technology is one area under study but Bedard insists nothing is exempt.

Quebec has been rocked in recent years by allegations of kickbacks in the awarding of contracts and questionable contributions to political parties at the provincial and municipal level.

Marois' government has brought in new measures to add to tougher regulations implemented by the previous Liberal administration. A government source told The Canadian Press that the tender system is also being reviewed.

The source says the rule of awarding the contract to the lowest bidder could be questioned in future, for example, if the government is aware that the bidder cannot do the job at that price.

The government is now gathering information on best practices being used in Ontario, the United States and elsewhere in the world. The new rules will be implemented gradually.

Political observer Jean Lapierre says the PQ has its eye on the inevitable early elections that come with a minority government

“They've really joined together in saying: you know we're going to zero deficit, rain or shine,” said Lapierre.

He added that the PQ doesn't want to be bothered by the provincial Liberal leadership race.

“In a minority situation usually people are spooked when they see their opposition getting organized and this time they don't seem to be nervous,” said Lapierre.

—with files from The Canadian Press.