Lucien Bouchard always did know how to seize public attention. Almost exactly a year after he and others called for a hard-headed new approach to Quebec's demographic and public-finance problems, the former premier was back in the headlines this week for a simple little observation he made during a TVA appearance: Quebecers, he said, "work less than Ontarians and infinitely less than Americans. We have to work harder."
It's a view that fits neatly with the approach taken in last year's manifesto, Pour un Quebec lucide. And his timing was too good, some say, to be coincidence: He spoke just before today's one-day conference at McGill University on the issues raised by the manifesto and by the riposte to it, Pour un Quebec solidaire, which came from a group of advocates of more socially active government.
Critics have been quick to clobber Bouchard for his new statement. "The days of slavery are over," said one union leader. In fact, the former premier was both right and wrong about our work habits.
The bald assertion that Quebecers don't work hard enough brings to mind one of Nick Auf der Maur's old lines: "Toronto," he liked to claim, "is where they say 'Thank God it's Monday!'" Many Montrealers will share that view, and with pride.
As several commentators told Bouchard, in Quebec people work to live, they don't live to work. And why not? That's a fine, sane response to the challenge of balancing work and private life - and it's a decision each person or couple should make individually.
But Bouchard wasn't criticizing any individual, nor advocating slavery, nor even demanding a more industrious workforce. Rather, he was saying that Quebecers cannot reasonably expect to work shorter hours than people elsewhere and still have comparable taxes and more public services and a more tightly woven social safety net than those people.
Governments have only the money people pay as taxes on wages, purchases, and profits. If our economy produces less per capita than Ontario's, then we cannot consume as much as they do in pay or in government services.
This should be obvious, but all the ranting about a "fiscal imbalance" suggests that some in Quebec expect taxpayers elsewhere to subsidize us.
And Bouchard does have some numbers on his side. Consider an average worker's average week on the job. In Ontario that person puts in 34.8 hours, in the U.S. 37.5 hours, in Quebec just 33 hours. And because Quebec has a high level of overall taxes on business, it's more difficult for employers here to invest in machinery to increase output per hour worked.
And yet Quebecers have given themselves a long list of costly government programs, from $7-a-day daycare to drug care to parental leave. If we can't pay for these things through taxes, we will not be able to afford them as our population ages, choking off revenue growth while demanding more and more money for health care. In that sense, Bouchard was completely correct: we're living beyond our means, and it can't go on.