For the longest time, Quebeckers have been shrugging off the concerns of fellow Canadians over the Parti Québécois’s so-called menace.
Despite the party’s quest for independence – which is far from shared across the population, as sovereignty is dormant on the Richter scale of pollsters – Quebeckers never doubted the PQ’s willingness to foster growth. Likewise, they could generally count on PQ premiers to soundly manage the province, though there were some notable blunders.
Former premier Bernard Landry has always defended free trade as a way to create wealth. Lucien Bouchard was obsessed with the province’s fiscal woes, fighting hard to secure a political consensus around the “déficit zéro” target. Jacques Parizeau presided over the rise of a generation of French-Canadian entrepreneurs through his innovative Quebec stock savings plan.
Far from being anti-business, these PQ premiers bent over backward to court investors and create a favourable business environment. Which is why Quebeckers are now as stunned with Pauline Marois’s economic plans as the coyote in Road Runner who is hit by an anvil he didn’t see falling. Where did these retroactive tax hikes come from?
The PQ government that has regained power after nine years in political wilderness is markedly to the left of its predecessors, with key ministers held by green activists. It is also “gauche” in the figurative sense, as it clumsily and precipitously unveiled its plans.
In just the past week, the Marois government revealed that its tax hikes would be retroactive to Jan. 1. It hinted at a permanent ban on shale gas exploration, before the completion of scientific studies that will determine the safety of the hydraulic fracturing used to free natural gas from rock formations. And it announced the closing of Quebec’s only nuclear plant before meeting with the leaders of the Mauricie region where the Gentilly II plant and its 800 jobs are located.
Retroactive income tax hikes are rare. In 1993, Gérard D. Levesque, Robert Bourassa’s finance minister, controversially imposed two surtaxes of 5 per cent each on the “rich” Quebeckers earning more than $32,500 and $54,300, respectively.
But no one has ever increased the capital gains tax retroactively, an idea the Marois government is mulling, but may now abandon as its seeks a compromise. Imagine you sold your cottage in February and invested the proceeds elsewhere, to find out you owe money on that transaction? This flies against the basic fiscal principle that taxpayers should have certainty.
New Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau toured the most listened-to stations Tuesday to defend his plan. “I claim we were clear,” he said during a Radio-Canada interview, when asked why the PQ had hid the retroactive tax increases.
The PQ said that they would abolish the controversial health tax within 100 days of taking power, creating a $1-billion shortfall, argued Mr. Marceau. Quebeckers should have logically deduced that the only way to pay for this was to change the rules, the minister said.
No matter which way the new Finance Minister wants to spin this, the PQ lied by omission.
There are good reasons to amend the regressive health tax, a $200 yearly contribution that all taxpayers must pay, no matter what their income. There are also logical reasons not to upgrade the Gentilly plant. The refurbishment will cost between $2-billion and $3-billion, and the province is already flush with surplus electricity.
Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Marois government is deliberately bashing Quebec’s highest-income earners, and its energy industry, in a populist bid to secure a majority government.
Who is going to defend the 140,000 plus Quebeckers who earn more than $130,000 a year? Who is going to defend nuclear energy and fracking? If you want to reclaim the ground to the left taken by the new Québec Solidaire party, there are no better targets. While this might play well in certain circles, this is now seen as a disaster by business leaders, who fear the PQ’s newstance will scare away talented professionals and investors.
Mr. Marceau has been trying to reassure the business community. “Quebeckers will derive their prosperity from a faster economic growth and a business community which enjoys an attractive environment,” he said.
Fine words but all of the PQ’s actions since they took office speak otherwise.