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globe editorial

Pauline Marois, Francois Legault and Jean Charest in 2006.CLEMENT ALLARD/The Canadian Press

The voters of Quebec need to concentrate their minds on which of the three major political parties is most likely to advance their long-term economic interests – and the least likely to entangle them deeper in identity politics.

Quebec has by far the largest public debt among the provinces of Canada; at almost $253-billion, it is 51 per cent of GDP, much worse than Ontario (in second place at 37 per cent). The budget deficit is comparatively healthy, at 1 per cent of GDP, and current government spending is fairly stable. But the overall debt of the broader public sector, for which the government and the taxpayers are ultimately responsible, including Hydro-Québec and other corporations (about $42-billion) and municipalities (nearly $22-billion), will keep growing, even if budgetary balance is achieved.

All three parties, though with varying emphases, place great hope in Quebec's development of natural resources in its northern region. But world demand for minerals is clearly down, and likely to remain so, for the life of the next government.

Moreover, Quebec has not adequately modernized the public sector's contracting with the private sector. Patronage is still common; bribery and corruption persist. Without vigorous reform, revenues will be wasted, and infrastructure will quickly depreciate.

The students' strike, which paralyzed parts of Montreal for weeks in the spring, showed the difficulty, in Quebec's all-too-distinct political culture, of enhancing non-tax revenues, and of funding education that will make Quebec's young people productive participants in an increasingly high-technology world – the universities' debt is another $2-billion.

With a birth rate of about 11 per cent, Quebec, like Canada as a whole, needs skilled immigrants to maintain and enhance its labour force. (Low-cost daycare has done little to help the population grow.) Shrill debates about "reasonable accommodation" – and convoluted proposals meant to appeal to Québécois nationalism – communicate intolerance. If Quebec acquires a reputation for not welcoming people from abroad, it will fall further behind.

That is the danger that Quebeckers face on several fronts. If the province does not embrace innovation, it will decline, relatively and absolutely. On Sept. 4, the electors should recognize that business as usual is not a viable choice.

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