Parti Quebecois government may be new, but it won’t be particularly effective

David Kilgour
David vs. David

Nine years in office are normally enough for any government in a multi-party democracy; this was probably true in the case of Jean Charest. Yet, as someone who lived in the province for 13 years, I have concerns about Pauline Marois and the Parti Quebecois (PQ) for both Quebec and Canada.

It should be encouraging for every Canadian that Marois, as the 30th premier of Quebec, is its first woman and one who has headed 15 ministries during a 30-year political career. In 1998, she was the architect of Quebec's popular daycare program.  She came out of retirement, won the PQ leadership unopposed in 2007, and returned to the national assembly in a by-election. She handled the shooting incident that marred election night with real dignity.

On the other hand, her Quebec Identity Act — proposing that future immigrants must learn French to run in elections at all levels and to become citizens of an independent Quebec — faces opposition from many francophones, anglophones, allophones, aboriginals, Liberals and PQ members. Her Charter of Secularism would ban wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs, kippahs and turbans, in public institutions, but crucifixes would be allowed, including the one in the legislative assembly. This campaign proposal and her justification of it — "Wanting to take a step toward the neutrality of the state doesn't mean we deny who we are" — is considered to be xenophobic by many.

[ David Jones: PQ victory a much-needed change for Quebec ]

Quebec faces serious economic problems, including the reality that fewer than three million taxpayers carry a $184 billion provincial debt. The Conference Board of Canada projects growth of only 1.4 per cent for 2012 — "one of the weakest performances in the country and much weaker than Ontario's." It also notes that Quebec's economy is feeling the burden of frail economic growth internationally and a heavy fiscal burden on its taxpayers.

The PQ campaign platform included economic proposals considered hostile to business: a $10-billion "strategic investment fund" to protect Quebec companies from foreign takeover attempts, increasing capital gains tax from 50 per cent to 75 per cent, a 30 per cent tax on "excess profits" for mining companies, and a 50 per cent royalty on pre-tax profits for hydrocarbons exploited in Quebec.

The province unfortunately lacks the means to pay for the PQ's election campaign social justice promises. These include eliminating student tuition increases, improving the education system, modernizing public transit, freezing electricity rates, eliminating the health premium and reimbursing a minimum of $5.5 billion on the province's debt by taking money from the Generations Fund set up by the Charest government

Many of the goals are socially just, but none is likely to attract new investment or create much-needed employment, especially for younger Quebecers. A better balance of progressive and job-creating measures is necessary today. The return of Quebec City's beloved Nordiques hockey team could be in jeopardy because the NHL is more likely to grant a franchise to a stronger economy than a weaker one.

The Marois government is likely to begin soon what some call a "provoke-and-sulk" strategy of picking fights with Ottawa, hoping that she can provoke Stephen Harper into doing something that will improve the conditions to win an independence referendum in Quebec. This is always the main PQ goal. If Ottawa blocks PQ initiatives to create more authority for the national assembly in Quebec, Marois will attempt to use each defeat as kindling to stoke the embers of the independence movement. Fortunately, the most recent CROP survey put public support for sovereignty at 28 per cent — a spectacular drop from the historic levels of the early 1990s. Both the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Quebec will oppose a referendum.

In fact, the election result was greeted with perhaps the greatest collective sigh of relief across Canada to have followed any of the five elections the PQ has won. After the PQ's comparatively weak victory, Marois conceded that her battles with the federal government would have to be carefully chosen.  The party will no doubt still demand a transfer of powers from Ottawa that touch on domestic and international affairs, including employment insurance, copyright policy and foreign-assistance funding.

It appears that Marois and the PQ simply do not agree that the German model of paying for improved social programs out of economic growth is the only one that works successfully today. When combined with its unending quest for full sovereignty, the new government seems likely to prove problematic in major ways for both Quebecers and Canadians.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.