At the recent Sochi Olympics, Quebec athletes made all Canadians proud, filling numerous places on our national teams and winning a disproportionate number of medals. Many of them spoke to media in natural and moving ways about being proud to be both Canadians and Quebecers.
Quebecers have long excelled in many fields, including culture, entrepreneurship, academics, finance, philanthropy and aeronautics. It is self-evident to many observers around the world that Quebec and Canada are stronger together, both at home and internationally, especially in the current difficult economic circumstances.
For the April 7 provincial election, however, if truth is probably the first victim in every election campaign, the one now in full flood across the province is in a distortion field all of its own.
One example is the province’s financial position, which has attracted little reality-based comment to date from either major party’s candidates, perhaps because government debt ballooned from continuous deficits under both Parti Quebecois and Liberal governments. The debt is currently about $175 billion, up from $37 billion in 1990-1991. As of 2010, there were only 3.8 million residents of the province paying income taxes to carry the government debt and possibly pay it off one day.
A study by TD Bank in early 2014 said the government of the province “currently has the largest debt burden relative to the size of its economy of any province in Canada.” Interest payments from Quebec City on its debt run today at almost $10 billion a year.
Sovereignty is a major feature of the distortion game. Premier Pauline Marois is attempting to reassure all, even suggesting that the Canadian dollar will continue in a sovereign Quebec. Her party platform commits to holding a referendum on the issue at a time the government deems “appropriate,” but she declines to say how she would determine the best moment. Many are convinced that it would be after picking as many un-winnable fights as feasible with any government in Ottawa.
When her briefly star candidate, Pierre Karl Peladeau, told the media that he was running “to make Quebec a country”, sovereignty quickly became the dominant election issue. The PQ almost immediately dropped below the Liberals in one province-wide opinion survey (36-39 per cent). Another poll indicated that 59 per cent of Quebeckers would vote against sovereignty, while only 41 per cent would favour it. The PQ will thus probably say no more about sovereignty until after election day.
What would be the cost of independence? As the Canada and Quebec populations are today 35 and 8 million respectively, an independent province would presumably have to accept about 23 per cent of the national debt and assets. For the former, this would currently come to about $150 billion, which at the current four per cent interest rate paid on it would require significantly increased taxes for Quebeckers.
How could a sovereign Quebec government fill the budgetary gaps when Old Age Security, employment insurance, and other transfer payments from Ottawa ceased? The province would have to pay out about $9.3 billion for the coming year alone, according to Christopher Ragan of McGill University, to replace the social payments received now because Quebec has a more aged population and higher unemployment than most other provinces.
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Unemployment, especially among younger Quebeckers, should be a major election issue. There are effective ways to create jobs, including encouragement to manufacturers through workplace training and internships. Manufacturing, based primarily in Quebec and Ontario has fallen from about 40 per cent of our national GDP in 1973 to less than 20 per cent today. The most successful economies today, including Germany, South Korea and China, still rely on exports from manufacturers of all sizes to create and sustain jobs and prosperity. Quebec and the rest of Canada should do their utmost to do likewise.
Premier Marois currently prefers to engage voters on her Charter of Values, which would authorize discrimination on the basis of religion in banning the wearing of turbans, head scarves and kippahs by persons working in government. In mid-campaign, she said her ban on displaying religious symbols should be extended to the private sector. She must know that the Supreme Court of Canada will probably strike down key sections of it, but still finds it politically useful as an election diversion. A Globe and Mail editorial this week is correct that her charter is “dangerous and mean, a political tool that Ms. Marois reaches for when her political fortunes are failing. Quebecers shouldn’t fall for such a cheap trick.”
This election is particularly important and electors should vote with special care.
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.