Others Pay for Quebec

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

The Lucids are losing. That is, this group of Quebecers headed by former premier Lucien Bouchard are losing the debate they themselves started two years ago when they proposed an austerity program to meet the financial and demographic problems looming ever larger in Quebec’s future.

But they’re not losing because their warnings have been drowned out by the unions and other groups with an interest in preserving the interventionist Quebec model developed over the past four decades.

Rather, they’ve been tuned out by the Quebec public, which doesn’t want to hear about why, having been allowed to get used to living beyond its means over those same four decades, it now must start to make sacrifices to benefit the children it’s not having anyway.

Last week, the CROP polling firm made public an analysis of its recent findings, and concluded there is “great attachment of Quebecers to their social democracy.”

Its respondents were asked whether Quebec’s social programs were more generous than it could afford, or should it even risk indebting young people and future generations to make the programs as generous as possible. Only 36 per cent thought the programs were too generous, while 57 per cent said they should be made as generous as possible.

The only proposed change acceptable to a majority was an expanded role for private insurance and clinics in the health sector.

Such debt-reduction measures as spending cuts, increases in hydro rates, university tuition increases and medical user fees were all rejected.

Even young people were opposed to measures to reduce the public debt they are inheriting. In fact, they were the most strongly attached to social democracy “a la quebecoise.”

The majority of Quebecers thought governments should play an important role in the country’s long-term development and modernization instead of leaving more room for private initiatives.
And comparatively, Quebecers were more likely than any other Canadians, including those in the relatively poor Atlantic provinces, to agree that society would be better off if governments played a larger role.

The overwhelming rejection of the Lucids’ austerity program shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“When people are asked to make sacrifices, first they have to judge them necessary” wrote one of the Lucids, Joseph Facal, a former Parti Quebecois minister, in Le Journal de Montreal.

“The work of explaining isn’t being done.” He deplored that the Lucids group “has done nothing” since it published its manifesto two years ago.

But it’s not just the fault of the Lucids. They felt the need to intervene in the first place because Premier Jean Charest and his government weren’t getting the job done.

And since last fall, even the government’s occasional feeble efforts to convince the public of the need to reduce the size and cost of the public administration have been abandoned entirely.
Instead, the government has indulged in a pre-election spending spree. At the same time, it has shamelessly called for the taxpayers of more prosperous and frugal provinces to pay even more so that Quebecers can continue to enjoy services that they do not, through a settlement of the fiscal imbalance.

It’s not the first time in recent years that a Quebec government has given the public the reassuring impression either that it is up to Ottawa to solve Quebec’s financial problems, or that the problems have simply gone away.

Bouchard himself declared victory and withdrew from the field after simply appearing to balance the provincial budget for the first time in 40 years.

Over that period, we’ve come to expect a level of provincial public services for which most of us don’t pay full cost, running up tabs to be picked up in part by others.

These include the future generations that will have to pay back the money we borrowed to pay for services we received, and the minority of the present population that shoulders a disproportionately heavy share of the tax burden.

And then, as a have-not province, we benefit from the equalization program, which redistributes federal tax revenues from richer provinces to poorer ones, so that the latter can afford comparable services.

So no wonder we’re so attached to Quebec social democracy. It’s so much easier to be generous with someone else’s money.