It is a marvellous country that tolerates as many contrasting styles of government as Canada does. In the late 1990s Preston Manning gave a news conference in Ottawa where he argued that, with Mike Harris and Ralph Klein running Ontario and Alberta on the right, Jean Chrétien must somehow be kept from running Ottawa on the left. In the end the only mechanism that could be found to fix the problem, if it was one, was a succession of general elections. It took many years after Manning voiced his complaint, but today Stephen Harper is running the country in a different direction.
Unfortunately for fans of uniformity, the provinces move too. Ontario hasn’t been run the way Mike Harris, or Stephen Harper, would like it run for nearly a decade. British Columbia seems likely to tilt leftward soon too. And in Quebec—well, let’s have a look.
Watching the early moves of Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois government, I’ve found myself thinking of a speech Harper gave at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. This was Harper the economic manager laying out his long-term vision for Canadian prosperity. Even people who don’t like what he’s done to the long-form census or the long-gun registry might discern some horse sense in what the Prime Minister said at Davos. At the time I noted it was much like a big speech Paul Martin delivered seven years earlier.
Marois’s new government is already doing the opposite of what Harper laid out at Davos. Systematically. It’s like she’s keeping a checklist.
“Is it the case that in the developed world,” Harper told the Davos toffs, “too many of us have, in fact, become complacent about our prosperity, taking our wealth as a given, assuming it is somehow the natural order of things, leaving us instead to focus primarily on our services and entitlements?”
Marois replies: nope! There’s still plenty of time to take wealth as a given and to focus on entitlements. The university tuition increases that were the object of half a year’s protests are cancelled. But the increased student aid that was supposed to compensate for the tuition hikes remains in place. That’s tens of millions of dollars’ worth of increased burden on universities. “We will continue to make the key investments in science and technology necessary to sustain a modern competitive economy,” Harper said at Davos. Marois is digging a funding hole for universities that will make good science that much harder to afford.
Taxes? “We will, of course, continue to keep tax rates down,” Harper said. “That is central to our government’s economic vision.” Marois says: speak for yourself. A uniform $200 health fee is abolished, to be compensated by higher income taxes on Quebecers who make more than $130,000 a year. It might even work, if high-income earners don’t simply shuffle their portfolios to put more of their money out of the taxman’s reach. Or leave Quebec. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Natural resources: “We will make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States and specifically to Asia,” Harper said. “In this regard, we will soon take action to ensure that major energy and mining projects are not subject to unnecessary regulatory delays.”
Marois wants to substantially increase revenues charged on northern resource developers. Where Harper’s environment minister, Peter Kent, seems not to believe there is such a thing as the environment, Marois’s Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet is horrified by natural resources. Quebec has immense shale gas reserves. Lucien Bouchard, whom you know, is in charge of the province’s shale gas lobby. On her way into her first cabinet meeting, Ouellet said she does not believe it will ever be possible to safely exploit the province’s shale gas. This will ensure Quebec is more virtuous and less rich than, say, British Columbia, where shale gas development proceeds apace.
Immigration? “We will ensure that, while we respect our humanitarian obligations and family reunification objectives, we make our economic and labour force needs the central goal of our immigration efforts in the future,” Harper said. Here, Marois may be stymied by the opposition to her minority government, but her stated goal is to make the French language the central goal of her immigration efforts. That means preferring French mother-tongue immigrants from Bordeaux over bilingual immigrants from Shanghai who might have handy skills. And French-speaking immigrants from North Africa? Well, the PQ has this thing about Muslim head scarves that doesn’t make Quebec sound like the most welcoming destination these days.
Economic growth this year in Quebec is already well below what Jean Charest’s Liberals projected in their last budget. Marois must find money where there hasn’t lately been enough, while her policies tend to discourage investment, immigration, resource development and healthy universities. Surely Harper is disappointed that his vision does not stretch past the Ottawa River.
Perhaps not. The investment that does not go to Quebec will go elsewhere. Quebecers who leave, many of them francophone, will make a stand somewhere else. It’s been common for decades to hear Quebec accents in Vancouver, Banff and Calgary. It will become more common. Harper’s long-term plan is to encourage money, populations and power to move westward within Confederation. Pauline Marois is doing all she can to help. He should send her a cake or something.