PQ inaugural speech: References to "Charter of Wood," 1; to an independence vote, 0

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QUEBEC - The emotionally charged identity issues that occupied centre stage in the recent Quebec election were shoved toward the background as the new Parti Quebecois government delivered its policy-setting throne speech Wednesday.

The one-hour speech did not include a single reference to independence referendums or the PQ's campaign promise to let citizens trigger plebiscites through popular petitions, as happens in numerous U.S. states.

In fact, Premier Pauline Marois included more references to her goal of creating a "Charter of Wood" — a plan to promote the use of Quebec forestry products in building projects — than to the idea of holding a vote to make Quebec a country.

Other hot-button identity issues received similarly scant prominence.

Marois promised public consultations before proceeding with two other controversial promises: the "Charter of Secularism" that would limit religious headwear in public institutions, and the proposed Quebec citizenship that would make future immigrants pass a French test to run for public office.

"These fundamental proposals must benefit from the greatest possible amount of public support," Marois said in her inaugural speech.

"The government has therefore decided to launch consultations to achieve a balance."

Marois did promise to proceed with a new language law but was vague on specifics and said she would go only as far as her minority government status would allow.

The premier delivered her throne speech nearly two months after being elected with a razor-thin minority — the first time in its history that the Parti Quebecois has ever had to try governing without possessing control of the legislature.

In past incarnations, in 1976 and 1994, PQ governments arrived in office with bold promises to hold votes on independence and with clear plans to make it happen.

This time, the PQ's top priority is far less polarizing.

Marois said her first weeks in office will be dedicated to fighting corruption, in the wake of political scandals that have rocked the province. She said she will not wait for an ongoing inquiry to offer its conclusions and will act immediately on the anti-corruption front.

The legislature's first piece of business — Bill 1 — will be an anti-corruption plan. It will require companies to prove that they have a clean track record in order to win contracts at the provincial or municipal level. Marois said she hopes to pass the bill before the holidays.

The new government also hopes to:

—Set fixed election dates.

—Set limits on the number of terms a Quebec premier can serve.

—Propose a three-term limit for mayors of municipalities with more than 5,000 residents, after consulting with municipal officials and opposition parties.

—Create a new transport agency, with qualified engineers, to monitor public works projects.

—Reduce the limit on political donations to $100, from the current $1,000.

Marois made a reference to the PQ's founding leader who, in the 1970s, created what was then Canada's toughest-ever political financing law and banned corporate donations.

"Let's be inspired by Rene Levesque. Let's take the influence of money out of politics," Marois said.

"The government will soon table a bill that will essentially create the public financing of political parties."

Marois suggested her government would have four priorities, with the first being tackling corruption. The others were public finances and the economy; social solidarity; and identity and defending Quebec's interest.

Marois made an announcement on federal-provincial relations: she said she will continue attending meetings of the Council of the Federation, the premiers' forum created by her predecessor Jean Charest.

She promised a "constructive but firm" relationship with the federal government. She said she would demand a transfer of power and funds related to culture, and keep fighting to preserve Quebec's data from the federal long-gun registry.

She concluded her speech with an ode to an independent Quebec.

Marois described the federal system as a waste of money burdened by two departments of finance, revenue, health, transport, the environment and revenue, along with two parliaments and a federal Senate.

She said Quebecers would rather control their own money instead of seeing it go to shipbuilding in the Maritimes and the auto industry in Ontario.

"What do we want to do with our taxes — finance celebrations of the War of 1812, and the monarchy, or finance our culture and education?" Marois asked rhetorically.

"Let's create a new country, a country in our image, a country for all."

Unlike some of her PQ predecessors, however, Marois offered little hint of how she plans to make that new country happen.

She did provide more details on her economic priorities.

There will be either a mini-budget, budget statement or perhaps even a full annual budget as early as this fall, Marois said.

A full budget tabled in 2012 could make it easier for the PQ minority to survive. The opposition Liberals will be in a leadership campaign until early next year and will be unlikely to provoke an election before then.

Marois promised a balanced budget by 2014 and said she would bring down Quebec's debt-to-GDP ratio — the largest in Canada.

She also promised to increase mining royalty rates and promote economic development that is "modern, sustainable, responsible and unifying."

She said she would create a committee of ministers and Crown corporation bosses that analyzes investment programs to ensure they meet three criteria: environmental responsibility, be export-friendly, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Marois promised other new government structures, including a secretariat of northern development. She also proposed a so-called "Charter of Wood" that will encourage the use of Quebec forestry products in buildings. She said she will encourage the construction of six-storey wood buildings.

Marois also promised to address the chronic backlogs in Quebec's $7-a-day daycare program. She promised a daycare spot for every Quebec child within four years.

But the dominant theme in the speech was fighting corruption.

"Quebecers are a fundamentally honest people," Marois said, referring to recent scandals.

"Let's united to make the fall of 2012 an important moment in our history. Let's allow our collective indignation transform itself into action, and help Quebec become once again one of the cleanest and most transparent nations in the world.

"That should be our aspiration."

-With files from Alexander Panetta in Montreal

Organizations: Parti Quebecois

Geographic location: QUEBEC, U.S., Canada Ontario Montreal

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