Here's one for Ripley's: Quebec now has a higher credit rating than either Ontario or Alberta.
After boosting Quebec's rating to double-A-minus last month, Standard & Poor's now ranks the province once considered Canada's fiscal truant as a more creditworthy borrower than either the province with all the oil or the province with all the banks and factories.
In May, S&P downgraded Alberta two notches to single-A-plus – the same level as fast-declining Ontario – after noting that Alberta's projected deficits through 2019 "are among the highest of [S&P-rated] non-U.S. local and regional governments" and that, "absent other measures," the province's tax-supported debt is set to hit $94-billion in 2020, up from zero not so long ago.
Those "other measures" would include a dose of Quebec-like fiscal restraint that Premier Rachel Notley's New Democrats seem unwilling to consider – at least not until, as with Quebec, they're forced to.
After all, it's not as though Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals kept the lid on program expenses out of any ideological commitment to small government. By the time Mr. Couillard took office in 2014, Quebec was headed toward a debt wall. Its net debt had surpassed 50 per cent of gross domestic product, economic and population growth were both weak and its taxes were already the highest in North America. There was no option left but to cut spending in real terms.
The dividends of that effort are now apparent. The Quebec government recorded a surplus of $2.5-billion in the 2016-17 fiscal year that ended in March. That is after it made a $2-billion contribution to its Generations Fund, an investment fund set up in 2006 and managed by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec that is aimed at reducing the province's net debt. The latter is projected to fall to 46 per cent of GDP by next March and to 42 per cent by 2021.
Quebec's fiscal performance is all the more impressive considering that its economic growth averaged less than 1.4 per cent annually in the three years to 2016, compared with 2.6 per cent a year in Ontario. Quebec's population is also aging faster and is workforce is already shrinking.
Still, the Quebec government deserves only so much credit for the turnaround. The province could not have balanced its books with such little disruption to health and social services (compared with Greece, for instance) had it not been able to count on considerable help from its friends. Even though Alberta's economy tanked with the oil crash and Ontario's manufacturing sector has declined, both provinces have remained large net fiscal contributors to the Canadian federation. Quebec, on the other hand, has continued to benefit from far more in federal spending and cash transfers than the province's residents pay in federal taxes.
A Fraser Institute study released Thursday estimates that, between 2007 and 2015, Albertans contributed nearly $190-billion more in federal taxes than they received in fiscal transfers from Ottawa or federal program spending during that period. For Ontario, the gap was $34-billion in Ottawa's favour. The right-leaning Vancouver-based think tank estimates that, during the same period, Quebec benefited from $130-billion more in federal spending and transfers than its residents and businesses paid in federal taxes.
This year, Quebec will pocket $11-billion in equalization payments from Ottawa, bringing its total equalization haul over the past decade to about $88-billion.
Alberta's 10-year haul? Trick question. It's still too rich to qualify for equalization payments.
Ontario will draw $1.4-billion in equalization this year, bringing its total over 10 years to about $18-billion. Even so, Ontario contributes far more to the equalization program than it draws from it. This year alone, the Ontario Ministry of Finance estimates the province's taxpayers will contribute $5.7-billion more to the federal equalization kitty than Ontario will receive in payments. Quebec, however, will be a net equalization beneficiary to the tune of $7.6-billion.
In total, in 2017-18, Quebec will receive $22.7 billion in federal cash transfers for health-care, social spending and equalization – a sum accounting for about 21 per cent of provincial government revenues. Despite a population 75 per cent larger, Ontario will get $21-billion in total cash transfers from Ottawa, accounting for about 15 per cent of provincial revenue. Federal transfers will account for about 13 per cent of the Alberta government's revenues in 2017-18.
Make no mistake, fiscal federalism (or redistribution) is a major reason Canada is an economic success. (If you want a glimpse at the alternative, just look at the European Union.) And while Quebec is often the main target of equalization critics, it is proportionately far less dependent on federal transfers than New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island.
Still, before Finance Minister Carlos Leitao crows about Quebec's latest credit upgrade, he should acknowledge he couldn't have done it alone. Alberta and Ontario, ironically now less creditworthy borrowers in S&P's eyes than Quebec, each deserve an assist.