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Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois speaks to supporters at a restaurant during an election campaign stop in Montreal on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois speaks to supporters at a restaurant during an election campaign stop in Montreal on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

BARRIE McKENNA

Tough financial choices await the winner of Quebec’s election Add to ...

Quebec has a rising jobless rate, a slowing economy, a throbbing debt hangover and a long list of pressing needs – in education, health care and infrastructure.

But a very different conversation is dominating debate as the Quebec election winds down. The emotion is all about corruption, sovereignty, language and culture.

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All three major parties are tiptoeing around the essence of the university tuition showdown, which helped trigger this election.

The well is dry in Quebec and the economy isn’t growing nearly fast enough to give voters everything they want. There are few appealing options left for the heavily indebted province, short of cutting services or raising already-high taxes.

And the longer Quebec waits to restore its fiscal health, the heavier the debt burden will be for the students of today, who are the taxpayers of the future. It hardly matters which party wins on Sept. 4. Some tough financial choices lie ahead for Quebec, and not just on university tuition.

That could explain why the three main parties aren’t too anxious to have that debate, instead promising billions worth of new unfunded promises.

The front-running Parti Québécois and its leader Pauline Marois are firing up the party base with talk of language, nationalism and sovereignty. François Legault, head of the conservative-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), is convinced that rooting out corruption and slashing bureaucracy will pay for eventual tax cuts and ambitious investments in health and education.

Meanwhile, Liberal leader Jean Charest doesn’t talk much about tuitions any more. He clings to his reputation as a good economic steward and insists the province’s economy is “excellent” and enjoys “one of the best performances in the world.”

Evidence suggests otherwise.

In its recent provincial forecast, the Conference Board of Canada predicted Quebec’s economy will grow significantly slower than the sluggish national economy this year and next at 1.4 per cent and 1.8 per cent, respectively. Far from being a world-beater, that would be the weakest performance in the country, ahead of only Nova Scotia and PEI.

“Quebec’s economy is feeling not just the weight of weakening global economic growth but also a heavier personal fiscal burden,” the Conference Board concluded.

At 1 per cent of GDP, Quebec’s budget deficit this year isn’t as ominous as Ontario’s. But high debt remains its Achilles heel. Net debt stands at 51 per cent of GDP – worst among all the provinces (Ontario is the next most indebted province at 37 per cent of GDP). Interest charges now consume more than one in every 10 tax dollars it collects. And every Quebecker is carrying the equivalent of $22,432 provincial debt – the worst in Canada – according to a Royal Bank of Canada estimate.

Mr. Charest had at least one thing right in his showdown with students. There is no getting away from higher tuition if the province wants first-rate universities.

But it isn’t just about tuition and students.

Mr. Charest’s opponents are selling voters the myth that they can have it all – more government at no extra cost. The PQ says it would freeze tuition, which are already the lowest in Canada ($2,519 per year versus the $5,366 national average in 2011-2012). The CAQ would roll back at least part of Mr. Charest’s planned 80-per-cent hike over five years.

Quebeckers must choose between higher tuition or higher taxes. Only during the fog of an election can they expect neither.

Both parties are peddling the same logic to other areas of spending. The PQ’s platform talks about investing heavily in education and infrastructure. The only effort to pay for it all is a proposed surtax on resource extraction – a measure that could stifle one of the few bright spots in the economy.

The CAQ isn’t much more realistic. In addition to rolling back part of the Charest tuition hikes, Mr. Legault is promising to extend public school hours to 5 p.m. and a $1,000-per-family tax break. He intends to pay for it all by eliminating bureaucracy and corruption.

The election, coming in the aftermath of all the pot banging, is a missed opportunity to have a rational discussion of fiscal choices.

Sovereignty and corruption may inflame passions. But the province’s financial health will determine how much Quebeckers get of the things that really matter – highways, hospitals and schools.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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