The Quebec way is passe

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Quebec's political and cultural establishment has long been a rather homogenous entity. For this elite, there really is only one accepted vision. No other is tolerated.

The way of doing things for this class is high taxes, large bureaucracy, rigid labour laws protecting unions and a very wide social safety net. This thinking helped build the province in the 1960s and 1970s, But what worked 30 and 40 years ago may no longer fit in 2006.

The province today faces an economy plagued by low productivity and little ambition. Examples of homegrown industrial success such as Bombardier exist, but even some of these behemoths are struggling.
The sitting premier, former federal Conservative Jean Charest, seems to have swallowed the Kool-Aid on this one. During his victorious election campaign, Mr. Charest promised to bring provincial taxes more in line with the rest of the country and the continent. Has he done that? Not so much.

The point is that the trajectory of Quebec's economy ought to be reassessed. Trouble is, any public musing on the issue invites accusations of betrayal to the Quebec way, even if your name is Lucien Bouchard.

The provincial elite is in an uproar because Mr. Bouchard dares question -- not once but twice -- the work ethic of the province he once led as premier. His televised interview about the dubious work habits of Quebecers came on the one-year anniversary of a report that delivered a similar seismic shock because it challenged the entitlements of so many groups in that society.

As Mr. Bouchard has noted, since the report was released nothing has been done to implement its many recommendations. The report, incidentally, was titled Pour un Quebec Lucide, but given the hysterical reaction of union leaders and politicians, it seems that lucidity is missing in certain influential parts of Quebec society.

The Quebecois intelligentsia has always had a peculiar affection for the statism that has come to symbolize "Old Europe." The economies of France and Germany were very successful in the 1960s and 1970s, but today both suffer from what many in the European media call "Eurosclerosis," a kind of economic stagnation. The success stories of Europe, where growth is strong, are nations such as Ireland and Britain that have reduced tax rates and focused on education and skills development.

Britain and Ireland, in recognizing the need to free their economies from strangling regulations, haven't surrendered their social consciences. Quebecers, and the rest of Canada for that matter, would do well to emulate their efforts. And soon -- because the real competition isn't from Europe, but from low-wage Asia.

It might seem presumptuous for an Ontario newspaper to criticize Quebec's miasma, but the fact is that if Quebec's economy performed better, Ontario's would benefit. If Quebec's restrictive trade union laws were removed, Ontario workers could more easily cross the border and work openly and honestly, rather than hiding in the basements they are renovating when the labour inspector happens by.

No one likes to be told their thinking is passe, that their social paradigm is obsolete, but Quebecers should thank Mr. Bouchard for his honesty.

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