The result of a Léger Marketing poll, published last Monday, came as a shock: 70 per cent of Quebeckers DID NOT want a tax reduction, even though they are the most severely taxed citizens in Canada. If Premier Jean Charest thought he would raise his popularity by offering this much-delayed respite to taxpayers, he was going to hit a brick wall. The same survey showed that despite a budget centred around a $950-million tax cut, Mr. Charest's government was more unpopular than ever.
Léger Marketing president Jean-Marc Léger was stunned. Somewhat emphatically, he proclaimed that Quebec had to be the only place in the "history of the world where a government loses points because it lowers taxes." Mr. Léger shouldn't have been that surprised, because the question asked by his polling firm was distinctly biased. It went like this: "Are you in favour of a tax reduction, or would you have preferred that the government uses this money to improve services in health and education?" The subliminal meaning was: "Do you selfishly want to pocket the money while your children's education is compromised and your old mother languishes in the emergency ward of an understaffed hospital?" Moreover, the question ignored the fact that the Charest government's budget actually did pour substantial amounts of money in health, education and other social programs.
But even if the question hadn't been loaded, chances are that a majority - not 70 per cent, but still a majority - would have been against tax reductions.
Why? Unfortunately, it's not because Quebeckers are by essence especially altruistic. It's because 42 per cent of adult citizens do not pay any income tax, either because their salaries are too low or because they're not working. So why would they bother about tax levels? Why wouldn't they want more and more social programs, since somebody else is paying for them?
"Keeping in mind how the tax cut is structured," said pollster Christian Bourque. "If you take out retired people, low-income earners who don't pay a lot of taxes, and add to that people who don't work and some other categories, what you're left with is only a minority of Quebeckers who pay a level of income tax that for them the cut would make much of a difference. If you make $30,000, you'll get pocket change at best." Predictably, the survey actually showed that those who make more than the average income want the tax cut.
The Montreal Gazette raised an interesting question: Are Quebeckers getting better services and social programs than their Ontario neighbours, who pay lower taxes?
In any case, the fact that a relatively small number of middle-class workers (there are very few really rich people in Quebec) carry the heaviest burden of the province's extremely generous social programs (including public daycare centres at $7 a day) is a tell-tale sign of economic weakness. Worse, the number of tax filers who don't pay taxes grows bigger every year. According to The Gazette, data for 2003, the most recent available, show that Quebeckers who earn more than $28,090 were 40 per cent of tax filers, but paid 92.7 per cent of the income tax.
High tax levels, on top of discouraging initiative and investment, have the effect of making the province less attractive to international immigrants and professionals from other parts of Canada. What saves Quebec is its francophone majority. In all the other provinces, professionals and skilled workers leave their home province to go where the best opportunities are. But even educated, bilingual Quebeckers tend to stay in Quebec because they are attached to their language and culture. Precisely because Quebec's non-francophones are not tied by these factors, many of them can be found in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.