By many measures, Quebec is in an enviable position in terms of its public finances. Awash in surpluses and paying down debt, the province is on such solid footing that Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates it could deliver a permanent 8-per-cent tax cut or 9-per-cent increase in program spending without getting into trouble.
And yet, the architects of this success, Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals, are trailing in the polls – victims, the experts say, of voters' overwhelming desire for change. The party poised to win the Oct. 1 election, the Coalition Avenir Québec, says Quebeckers recognize the Liberals are worn out and that they're more open than ever to the CAQ's let’s-rise-to-our-potential message.
"The problem with this government is they've given up" on pushing growth, said economist Éric Girard, one of the CAQ's high-profile candidates. He characterizes the Liberals as tired and lacking ambition after being in power for 13 of the past 15 years. "We can do better."
The 51-year-old father of two teens says he entered politics to help Quebec assume its natural leadership position within the federation. As former treasurer of the National Bank of Canada, he helped the Harper government initiate a reform of financial institutions after the 2008 global credit crisis. Now, as a key element of that reform – the bank recapitalization regime – starts rolling out, further bolstering the strength of the country’s banks, he's setting his sights on bolstering Quebec’s economy and education system.
Things are not nearly as rosy as people are being led to believe, he says. Over the decade since the financial crisis, Quebec has barely bested Ontario on job growth and underperformed it on productivity, Mr. Girard said. Meanwhile, disposable income per capita remains the lowest in the country. The province is also lagging on business investment and has the lowest public high-school graduation rate, according to a study published this year by the Institut du Québec.
Even Quebec’s public finances, which are in good shape after the Liberals slashed spending during their first two years in power, are nothing to get overexcited about, Mr. Girard contends. Sure, the government generated a surplus of $2.3-billion in its 2017-18 fiscal year as the economy expanded by a solid 3 per cent. But he says it was helped by two things outside its control: a significant increase in federal transfers over the past four years (climbing at twice the rate of its own source of revenues) and low interest rates.
Quebec’s economic growth has been good, but nothing exceptional, he says; some 80 per cent of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries last year grew above their expectations. The Liberals are predicting real gross domestic product will climb by 1.7 per cent next year, 1.5 per cent the year after that and 1.3 per cent for the two following years, according to the Finance Department’s latest report on the state of Quebec’s books.
That's decidedly uninspiring, Mr. Girard says. The CAQ can rev up Quebec's economy by aggressively tackling the structural issues holding it back, he says. He thinks Quebec can ween itself off equalization within 15 years.
The CAQ has some bench strength on money issues, with former Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec vice-president Christian Dubé returning to the party fold this week and newcomer economist Youri Chassin, who has been tapped to be party spokesman for at least one debate. Mr. Girard's background is seen by party insiders as tailor-made for the finance portfolio, Montreal's La Presse media outlet reported. He would certainly be given a "key role," one CAQ official said.
Mr. Girard is a sports nut who reads voraciously and runs for fun. Born in Sept-Îles, he grew up in Quebec City and says he learned his first choppy English from watching Boston Red Sox games. He later perfected it with studies at McGill University. This is his second run at politics after being beaten as a Conservative candidate in the previous federal election.
The CAQ courted him, he says, noting he shares party Leader François Legault's two chief preoccupations: the economy and education. He doesn't shy away from discussing controversial ideas in the party's policy playbook, such as the party's plan to cut immigration levels by 20 per cent.
Mr. Girard insists the cuts will be temporary – likely two years. He says they're necessary because the current programs to help new arrivals learn French and win suitable employment to match their qualifications aren't working. Fix the programs and you'll get a bigger percentage of immigrants that integrate, he says.
Another contentious policy is the CAQ’s plan to ban religious symbols worn by anyone in positions of public authority, including teachers and doctors. Asked if Quebec doesn’t risk losing skilled workers who might decide to leave if this secular protocol is applied, he says only that the move will introduce certainty after a decade-long debate on the subject.
Economist Carlos Leitao, Quebec’s Finance Minister for the past four years, said the CAQ is in denial about the province’s worker shortage, which is so acute that 100,000 jobs are currently listed without takers. “It’s certainly not by decreasing immigration levels that we’ll help our companies meet this crying need,” he said.
The CAQ is pledging to introduce more measures to encourage older workers to stay in the work force to help meet that demand. And it wants to review the mandate of Investissement Québec, the government's investment arm, to get companies spending and attract foreign capital.
Quebec also needs a bigger share of Canadian public companies if it wants to lead the country in growth, he says. A CAQ government would support that effort to catch up in listings.
“Looking 10 years from now, we need to be somewhere around our demographic weight in terms of public companies in the TSX 60,” Mr. Girard said. “The question is: Who is the next CGI? Who’s the next Couche-Tard? Who’s the next Metro?”