Is Quebec Getting Ahead of The Curve By Ending Equalization?
When it comes to guarding its self-interest, Quebec is the maestro in Canada’s orchestra. For much of the time since the 1995 Referendum barely failed, the province has played a passive/ aggressive symphony. To placate its own population, Quebec’s politicians at the federal and provincial level have plucked the souvereintiste chord. They cracked down on language laws and cancelled any traces of an Anglo ascendancy in the province.
To pacify its partners in a looser version of the federation, however, Quebec has also composed a soothing tune about never, ever wanting to leave its home in Canada. The reward for that tear-jerker was the billions in equalization bribes that flowed to Quebec, composing up to a tenth of the provincial budget in some years. In the 2018 fiscal year will receive $11.7 billion out of a total equalization payout of $18.9 billion.
This annual windfall, which Quebec has shared in for 50 years, allowed Quebecois to enjoy first-world social benefits on a developing-world budget. Cheap daycare, in vitro fertilization, minimal post-secondary tuition were among the fruits of this little charade.
So it was telling when the new premier of Quebec, Francois Legault, said that his CAQ government was going to swear off the demon equalization. “What I want to say to Quebecers is that a CAQ government will seek zero equalization. A CAQ government will eliminate the wealth gap with the rest of Canada. A CAQ government will have ambition, will think big for Quebec.”
How’s that? Quebec seemingly giving up the golden calf with no tradeoffs? Qu’est-ce-que c’est? Legault has not come up with a secret formula to replace the missing billions, either. Like Churchill, he’s promising only blood, sweat and tears in an economic recovery. According to experts, Quebec’s GDP per capita, currently about $47,500, would have to rise to $60,000 to transform Quebec into Alberta— a “have province”.
According to University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, to close the gap Quebec would need to find an extra $20 billion in resource revenue — roughly double the resource earnings of Alberta.
Strangely, prime minister Justin Trudeau— for whom a productive Quebec would be a windfall— has been mute on this dramatic change of policy in his home province. Anyone listening or reading Canada’s press— clinically scrubbed of conservatives beyond Rex Murphy— would have also had no idea this was in the offing. How was this such a surprise?
Perhaps the Quebecois understand that, while Trudeau and his ministers are distracted by lofty climate goals and gender policies, something else has been going on lately in the federation. A movement quite unlike those tender-hearted folks who once begged Quebec to stay in Canada during the referenda.
Perhaps Legault senses an uncompromising partner in the political mosaic, whose resentment of Quebec’s suck-and-blow routine reached its tolerance in the fight to cancel the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines.. Maybe his name is Jason Kenney. Or Doug Ford. Or Scott Moe. Or even Andrew Scheer (if pushed hard enough). Maybe it’s all of them.
Judging by the comments of these people, you get the sense that the time of being played off as useful idiots is done. You’d almost think Quebec is voluntarily putting on the hair shirt before they’re forced by unsympathetic partners to quit the equalization habit cold turkey. (In Quebec it can cynically be played as a preamble to separation.)
You’d think that Trudeau, a Quebecker himself, would have seen this coming, especially with a federal election slated for next fall. Yet, despite the recent elections of populist conservatives across the nation, the feds continue to preach steady-as-she-goes in the population. The multiple gaffes of the Trudeau administration are brushed off at CBC as just misspent boyish enthusiasm. If not, pleasant Mr. Scheer will steer the boat to smoother sailing.
In doing so they ignore the warnings of former PM Stephen “The Butcher” Harper. The bête noire of the Left— who left behind a barren wasteland of something or other— has penned a new book “Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption”, warning of the populist urges in government everywhere. That includes Canada.
Freed from the bell jar of the Hill, Harper has seen the simmering resentment of the West over pipes and payments, a resentment that can shake the federation to its knees. How do we know it’s serious? Just listen to Legault Quebec describe his mandate to slay the equalization payments dragon roaring in from the provinces to the West.
While Trudeau dozes and Scheer plays Mr. Smith Goes To Waubeshene, faith in the Family Compact to keep things running smoothly is done. (In parody fashion, the Globe & Mail cites the book’s many flaws while conceding it might still worth a read.)
The quixotic popularity of Max Bernier and the urban popularity of the progressive far left are harbingers of Harper’s thesis of a rough beast come to devour Canada’s elites. A demise that Quebec, ever conscious of its survival, looks determined to get ahead of.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps AreKilling Pro Sports And How The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.