Quebec's future sacrificed on the altar of zero deficits


Friday, May 02, 2003
This week, the sainted zero-deficit finally came out of the closet for what it is: a myth. You might even call it a religion. Faith matters, not reality. The alleged ''hole'' or ''impasse'' former auditor-general Guy Breton found in the last Parti Québécois budget, whatever its actual size, was part of the price to be paid to keep the myth alive.
Once the choice was made to bow to the high-priests of Standard and Poor's and of Moody's - who demand the axing of any deficit to hand out respectable credit ratings - the government has had no choice but to resort to creative accounting to table a so-called balanced budget.
But creative accounting is the least interesting and revealing part of the story. The true purpose of the ongoing search for the Holy Grail of the zero deficit is to justify the ongoing reduction of the role of the state. Behind this Holy Grail there's much more than budgets and accounting procedures. There lies a distinct vision of society, namely, a neo-conservative one.
Though most political parties in Canada have come to embrace the zero-deficit as the basis for good governance, it's interesting to note that in Quebec it was a former Conservative minister, Lucien Bouchard, who enrolled Quebecers in this elusive quest. And it's now another former Conservative, Jean Charest, who will keep cutting back government programs so as not to awaken the deficit monster.
On the day he introduced his new cabinet, Premier Charest stated that Quebecers had ''turned the page'' on the strong, interventionist state that was created during the Quiet Revolution. But in fact, Quebecers have been turning that page for a while, albeit unwillingly.
It all started in March 1996 when Premier Bouchard held a major socioeconomic summit at which our esteemed elites concocted their own consensus on the need for a zero deficit. Bouchard then went to New-York to tell business people that sovereignity wouldn't be his priority. The axing of the deficit would be.
That's when we were promised two things. First, that the huge sacrifices that would be made by certain segments of the population and the drastic budget cuts that would decrease both the quantity and the quality of public services would be imposed for a limited period of time. After that, we would witness a major reinvestment in those services.
Second, sovereignists were promised that the zero deficit would be the sacred prerequisite to the eventual holding of a ''winning'' referendum. Once finances were in order, Bouchard would finally get back to the business of achieving sovereignty. Or so we were told.
But guess what? We were had on both counts. After the PQ tabled six so-called balanced budgets in a row, public services will be axed again under the Charest government. One must keep the mythical zero-deficit alive, right? And neither Bouchard nor Landry ever did proceed to hold a referendum. Now, with Charest's Liberals in power, we'll be getting more of the same: no referendum and more cutbacks - except for health and education, if we're lucky.
Meanwhile, the federal government keeps racking up those surpluses with our tax dollars, and Charest will keep cutting services the same way Bouchard and Landry did to continue pleasing the people at Moody's.
Caught between Ottawa and the demands of the business world, the government of Quebec will have no choice but to resort to more creative accounting. Public services will keep dwindling, and the price we pay for such government programs as drug-insurance and legal aid will continue to go up. Don't invest those promised tax cuts quite yet.
This whole situation will continue to reinforce both the private sector and the federal government. Private business will move in more and more to deliver services that the Quebec state will no longer provide. Ottawa will dip into its surpluses to move even further into provincial jurisdictions and exercise greater control, both political and financial, on public policies and services.
That's the legacy Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry chose to leave behind when they accepted to sacrifice an array of public services on the altar of the sacrosanct zero deficit instead of protecting the role of the state and investing their energies in the project of sovereignty.
And that, without question, is the road Jean Charest will merrily continue to travel, and at an even faster pace. That should make Paul Martin and Paul Desmarais, the icon of the Canadian business establishment, two very happy men for some years to come.

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