Published: 03/09/2007 - Vol. 7, No. 5
Quebec is in the midst of a general election and that means politicians from the three major parties - the Liberals, Parti Quebecois and Action Democratique du Quebec - are flying, driving and trudging around their snowbound province trolling for votes.
Political campaigns in one jurisdiction usually needn't concern members of the public in other parts of the country, but Quebec is different.
When Quebec politicians spend money, they are putting other people's dollars to work. Have-not Quebec is sustained by tax dollars collected outside its borders, namely Ontario and Alberta, sent to Ottawa and transferred to La Belle Province. Canada's second-largest province is an economic sinkhole dominated by a bloated state and radical unions. Yet it provides a coddled citizenry with lavish social programs generally not available elsewhere.
In principle, no one should object to equalization payments. They ensure that every province can provide its citizens with roughly equivalent health care and education, which are vital to the long-term well-being of every individual.
But Quebec has become overly reliant on equalization payments and its dependence is growing. Currently, taxes raised outside the province account for 20 per cent of the government's revenue, up from 15 per cent a decade ago.
Quebec draws on the wealth of the nation to offer young parents heavily subsidized childcare for $7 a day, a bargain not available to families in any other province. Quebec university students pay annual tuition fees of $1,668, which have been frozen for 13 years while fees in every other province have been rising and students have been racking up big debts to obtain degrees.
"For now, someone else is paying and it's other Canadians," says University of Montreal economics professor Claude Montmarquette. "But we're going to hit a wall and the rest of Canada is going to say: 'You're asking us to pay for programs that we can't even afford for ourselves.' " Montmarquette was one of 12 prominent Quebecers from across the political spectrum who, in October 2005, signed a manifesto called A Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec. The most prominent was former premier Lucien Bouchard. Their document, which stirred considerable public debate at the time, described the structural faults in the foundations of Quebec society and called for major reforms.
Quebec is among the 25 per cent of provinces and U.S. states that rank as least prosperous. It has the highest per capita public debt in North America. Currently, 16 per cent of the provincial budget, or $7 billion annually goes to servicing the debt, which is equivalent to the entire budgets of 12 of 21 government departments.
Since the Quiet Revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Quebec has had one of the lowest birth rates in the western world and consequently the province's population is aging faster than any industrialized society except for Japan.
The results will be dire, warn the signatories of A Clear-Eyed Vision. By early in the next decade, Quebec will have fewer young people, fewer workers, more senior citizens and skyrocketing health-care costs. "We will be less dynamic, less creative and less productive," they say.
At an individual level, Quebecers have some bad habits. "They work less than other North Americans, they retire earlier, they benefit from more generous social programs, their credit cards are maxed out," the manifesto says.
Yet, this is a province where people resist reform with vigour. The manifesto goes on to say that: "The slightest change to the way government functions, the most timid call to responsibility, or the smallest change to our comfortable habits is met with an angry outcry."
In the current campaign, which ends when voters go to the polls on March 26, nobody has whispered a word about meaningful reform. This election is just another squandered opportunity for a serious discussion about the province's future.
Premier Jean Charest and PQ Leader Andre Boisclair spent the early days sparring over what a victory by the separatist party would mean. Charest insists the PQ would hold a third referendum, even though the province can barely afford provincehood let alone nationhood.
The separatists, masters of equivocation and mendacity, are promising only a "public consultation" on the future of the province. Yet, according to Chantal Hebert of the Toronto Star, Boisclair tried to light a fire under his supporters in one speech by using the word referendum seven times and promising 22 times to lead Quebec to freedom.
The political spectrum in Quebec is said to be made up of federalists, soft nationalists, hard nationalists and outright separatists, who prefer to call themselves sovereigntists.
But to judge from the campaign debate so far, Quebec's political leaders are all foggy-minded fantasists who are ignoring a looming catastrophe and selling pipedreams financed by taxpayers in other parts of Canada.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)
Guess who's paying for Quebec pipedreams?
Reform is a forgotten topic in election campaign