During his eight-year stint as Quebec’s professorial finance minister between 1976 and 1984, Jacques Parizeau never once balanced the books. Whether the economy was good or bad, he ran huge deficits that make those incurred during the recent recession look like pocket change.
Still, no one seemed too worried about the debt piling up. Mr. Parizeau could count on double-digit inflation to make the previous year’s deficit look smaller. And the massive cohort of postwar baby boomers – the largest and best-educated group of taxpayers ever – was just entering the work force. Even when recession hit, Mr. Parizeau could always count on an even headier recovery.
Like Mr. Parizeau, Quebec’s current finance minister is an economics professor. Unlike Mr. Parizeau, Nicolas Marceau is a down-to-earth kind of guy. He’s got no time for pontification. Inflation won’t mask the debt. The work force is shrinking. The retiring boomers need hip replacements. Taxpayers are tapped out. And economic growth is puny.
With his recent critique of Mr. Marceau’s tight fiscal management, the 82-year-old Mr. Parizeau is either living in a time warp or out to stir mischief among already divided sovereigntists. In his two-part analysis, published last month in Le Devoir. Mr. Parizeau bemoaned the current Parti Québécois government’s fixation on balancing the budget, criticizing its (minor) welfare and daycare cuts. He even suggested that Quebec can afford to abolish university tuition.
To be sure, more than a generational divide separates Mr. Parizeau from his successor. The imperious Mr. Parizeau earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics during the glory days of interventionism, not long after Lord Beveridge had laid the foundations of the British welfare state. As a top economic adviser to Quebec premiers, he was one of the main architects of state-building of the Quiet Revolution. He remains a Keynesian through and through.
Mr. Marceau, 48, is emblematic of a pragmatic generation of post-Quiet Revolution Quebeckers who, even when they’re sovereigntists, have no illusions about the fiscal math. They believe it would be unconscionable to force their children to pick up any more of the tab for the boomers’ indulgences than they already stand to inherit. They know bond markets would balk anyway.
Mr. Parizeau may figure that sovereigntists need a feel-good story to boost their crummy morale. Hence, his exegesis on the state of Quebec’s finances, in which he argues that the province’s debt burden is far less onerous than is generally assumed. Measured according to the accounting rules that Ottawa employs, for example, Quebec’s debt is of a similar proportion.
This was no revelation (the comparisons are widely available). A more appropriate comparison is that of the net debt of Ottawa and the provinces. And by that measure, Quebec remains by far the jurisdiction most in hock and, beyond the Maritimes, the one with the least promising economic prospects to pay off its borrowing.
Recent Quebec governments have acted accordingly. With the exception of public-works contracts – scandalously inflated for years by corruption – Quebec has managed its public finances more frugally than other provinces. While Quebec has a wider array of social programs, the extras are financed by a higher provincial tax burden, not federal transfers. Indeed, if Alberta applied Quebec’s tax system, it would raise 50 per cent more than the $38.6-billion Alison Redford’s government expects in revenue this year. Then, Alberta could really build a nest egg worthy of the Heritage Fund.
On a per capita basis, Alberta spends a third more on health care than Quebec. Ontario and Alberta spend 25 per cent more on primary and secondary education. The implementation over seven years of a major pay increase for doctors (negotiated under the previous Quebec government) will shrink the health spending gap with Ontario. But dollar for dollar, Quebec provides far more public services, with a far smaller tax base, than other provinces.
If there’s a feel-good story for Mr. Marceau, it’s that Quebec’s demographic crunch has eased somewhat. The province’s birth rate now surpasses the Canadian average, and its share of new Canadian immigrants has been steadily increasing. It took in 21.4 per cent of newcomers to Canada in 2012. It was only the second time in 40 years that its share surpassed 20 per cent.
Still, the demographic improvements are a minor consolation. No amount of airbrushing by Mr. Parizeau can pretty up the debt monster Mr. Marceau must stare down.