I really, really hope my fellow Canadians in Quebec fully understand their province's mid-term economic outlook before heading to the polls. Debt, demographics, and the end of equalization payments strongly suggest that, should the Parti Quebecois succeed in its goal of eventually winning a referendum on sovereignty, going it alone would prompt a painful, extended economic transition period.
English speaking Canada has come to grudgingly accept the Quebec government's tendency, as seen by blocking the Rona Inc. takeover, to favour political concerns over fostering the health of its economy. This general trend, however, has left the province with an economic growth rate that trails the national average by a significant margin and a provincial debt level that, at 50 per cent of GDP, is by far the highest in the country.
Ontario, it must be noted, is catching up quickly on the debt front, but will continue to have the support of equalization payments from the feds. An independent Quebec, on the other hand, will forego transfer payments that are estimated at $9.3-billion for 2014.
The provincial debt load will be a hurdle to future Quebec growth but, in the end, it can be managed. (That's not including any share of Canada's national debt that a separate Quebec might inherit.) Demographics are a different, more insidious matter. RBC economist Robert Hogue writes, "Quebec is being challenged by deteriorating demographic trends, in particular a rapidly slowing working age population growth that will restrain its 'potential' [growth] rate."
Quebec's demographic issues are not only short term ones. As Statscan notes, "[Quebec's] weak demographics could mean the [population] increase rate will be negative in about two decades."
The Conference Board of Canada's chief economist Glen Hodgson believes that many Quebeckers are unaware of the potential negative economic impacts of separation. "Some of Quebec's political leadership [are] in apparent denial about the coming economic reality," he said. "The  election saw limited substantive discussion of Quebec's likely economic future – so many Quebeckers appear to have no idea what is about to hit them."
It's not like Quebec's economy is currently firing on all cylinders, either. In November, The Quebec Finance Ministry slashed its nominal GDP forecast for the 2013-2014 fiscal year from 3.6 per cent to 2.1 per cent, and predicted a provincial deficit of $2.5-billion.
Quebec's abundant resource wealth means the province will not be completely unarmed in its fight for economic growth. But Mr. Hodgson, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, noted his concern that, if an independent Quebec didn't make huge improvements in terms of productivity, it would be "demonstrably less attractive" as a destination for global resource investment.
If the people of Quebec fully understand the economic pain implied by sovereignty and still vote for independence, that's one thing. But, if Mr. Hodgson is right and the economic realities aren't clear to a lot of the population, the PQ may be leading their constituents off an economic cliff.