Tag Archives: Quebec

Follow the bouncing budgetary balls


As the Government of Canada coordinates the release of its signature piece of election-year propaganda, the federal budget, provincial finance ministers are scrambling to contain the public relations disasters that are their own annual spending plans.

Rarely in the nation’s history have the fiscal conditions of the regional partners in Confederation contrasted so sharply with that of the national one – a circumstance that does little to inform Canadians about the true state of the union they occupy.

Yesterday, New Brunswick’s fine, young Liberal government brought down its first budget since assuming office last fall, becoming the latest in a string of provinces (Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta) to swallow its bitter medicine in one, quick gulp.

Oh to be in British Columbia in the springtime. That province is doing so well these days, it managed to double its forecast budget surplus of more than $400 million in fiscal 2014-15 to nearly a billion bucks ($879 million).

The same cannot be said for Alberta, which has just posted a deficit of $5 billion, despite having raised $1.5 billion in new taxes. According to a CBC report, “The reaction . . .is mixed: relieved that there was no increase in the corporate tax rate, and concern that Albertans will have less disposable income in a time when the economy is weak.”

In Quebec, the preoccupation is with runaway debt. That province’s 2015-16, $100-billion budget is freckled with nips and tucks in almost every department, but especially in the big-ticket portfolios of health care, education and social services. “We are making reforms, we are doing things differently,” the province’s Treasury Board chairman Martin Coiteux told the CBC. “It’s not that we are reducing services. We are looking at ways to live within a budget envelope which is relatively smaller than what we would like, but this is this the required step to rebuild our room to manoeuvre.”

  And, according to a report by The Canadian Press last month, “The Saskatchewan government has brought forward a budget that attempts to put the brakes on spending increases and peels back tax incentives for middle-class families, graduates and the potash industry. . .A global oil downturn is putting the squeeze on the province’s bottom line, but Finance Minister Ken Krawetz noted that there are no new personal income taxes or fee increases.”

Now, stroll down the banks of the Rideau Canal, Blackberry on full news-alert mode from the nation’s capital, and you’ll observe that the fiscal backstory appears altogether different. Canadians aren’t mired in debt. Nay, it’s quite the contrary. Our supremely responsible, circumspect and economically gifted federal government is preparing to bring down a (nearly) balanced budget with about $4.5 billion in goodies for individual voters.

Indeed, from places like New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the stern warnings of penurious governments bear almost no resemblance to the rosy messaging wafting through Ottawa’s halls of privilege and power, following the bouncing ball from provincial script to federal talking point can give a guy whiplash.

Still, there’s some reason to think that many of the differences between national and provincial bean-counters are illusory. After all, only one pot of sovereign money is  spilled or filled in this country, as circumstances require. What one branch of government giveth, another taketh away just as keenly. The Bank of Montreal has already noted as much in a recent report. As BMO economist Robert Kavcic told the CBC “most of what Ottawa will be returning to one taxpayer’s pocket, the provinces will take out of the other.”

So much, then, for a vote-friendly federal budget.

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Valuable lessons from La belle province

What price doth the future demand?

What price doth the future demand?

Although Quebec’s Charter of Values is not, by any sane measure, a beacon of wise public policy, at least two of its civic programs indisputably are: its public child care initiative and its school system.

Fifteen years ago, La belle province launched universal, full-day, $7-per-diem early childhood education, a program unlike any other in Canada and one that a recent Globe and Mail report described as a “a wildly ambitious experiment in society-building – a controversial $2.2-billion bet that better daycare can not only transform child development but also vastly improve the prospects of women and the poor, and build a better labour force.”

Today, 15 years later, Quebec teenagers are among the most mathematically proficient secondary schoolers in the world; on par with their counterparts in Japan, and not far off the mark set by those in Macau-China. 

Considering that the rest of Canada declined precipitously in the 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development survey, compared with results from 2006 and 2009, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Quebec’s structured and integrated approach – a “whole child” concept that provides both consistent and standardized learning opportunities from pre-kindergarten to post-grade school – is actually working.

That may come as a great disappointment to libertarian brand warriors, both in and out  of government, who believe that schools should reflect the diversity and often unequal capabilities of the “customers” they serve. 

For many, the Bush-era mantra of “no child left behind” means literally that: by hook or by crook, all kids matriculate either to university or into the workforce, regardless of their respective abilities to make change from a five dollar bill or find the square root of four (spoiler alert: it’s two).

That’s one reason why falling high school drop-out rates in Canada provides only false hope to educators, parents and employers. A far more serious problem is the widening skills gap – a complex problem that many experts say is exacerbated by rickety educational apparatus across the country.

“Jobs are being created, but we simply don’t have enough skills in the right place at the right time,” Alistair Cox, the chief executive of international recruiting firm Hays PLC told the Globe in October. “Sadly, there is a lot of friction in the system, which will make [the jobs mismatch] worse as the economy improves. . .Companies are really struggling to find the high-end niche skills that they need for the jobs that are available.”

Added the Globe writer: “One problem in filling the skills gap is that educational institutions take so long to redirect their resources to the jobs that are opening up, while immigration rules are being ‘tuned to mass and unskilled migration issues, as opposed to highly skilled migration,’ Mr. Cox said.”

It may well be as Paul Cappon, a senior fellow at the graduate school of international and public policy at the University of Ottawa, tells the Globe this week: “Canada will continue its decline in all international rankings in the education field until it develops a national strategy – including standards and shared learning outcomes for all age and grade levels.”

But Quebec’s example suggests that such ambitions are worthy. They even become workable when you consider the economic impact.

“We estimate that in 2008 universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec induced nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program existed – an increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment,” concluded a report by Canadian economists Pierre Fortin, Luc Godbout and Suxie St.-Cerny a few years ago. “By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent ($5 billion) as a result. We find that the tax-transfer return the federal and Quebec governments get from the program significantly exceeds its cost.”

Indeed, given the larger and longer-term contributions of a national model of early childhood learning and disciplined public education to the country’s prosperity and competitiveness, any program would be a bargain at thrice the price of Quebec’s.

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Quebec leaders sing a looney tune

State-enforced "neutrality" is for the birds

State-enforced “neutrality” is for the birds

Ranking high on the lengthening list of Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’s dubious political talents is her unerring ability to draw precisely the wrong conclusions from history – especially other people’s history.

Earlier this year, while on a trip to Scotland, the Partis Quebecois leader gamely offered her help to the independence-minded Alex Salmond, that country’s First Minister. She would, she said, send him a few morsels of information from her province’s 1995 referendum on sovereignty. His reaction, in turn, was to go out of his way to avoid being seen with her in public.

Then, last week, she told Le Devoir that ethnic diversity lies at the heart of social unrest in England, where, apparently, “they’re knocking each other over the head and throwing bombs because of multiculturalism and nobody knowing any more who they are in that society.”

Now, we discover through the Globe and Mail that she believes “France is a model of integration.” Further, she suggests that it is “the most beautiful example . . . (it) has a very impressive number of people (from North Africa) and has found a space to live well with immigrants from other regions.”

Wrong, wrong and wrong, again.

The roots of Scotland’s independence movement are so vastly dissimilar from Quebec’s, the comparison does not bear making. And even if they weren’t, what possible use would the PQ’s trove of documents from its failed attempt to sever Quebec from the rest of Canada be to the leaders of the Scottish National Party?

As for England, sectarian and ethnic violence — which, it’s worth noting, is no more rampant than it is in south-central Los Angeles — has less to do with “multiculturalism” than it does with the nation’s proximity to radicalized networks of European terror cells. This is a fact with which it and its continental neighbours have been dealing for decades.

And what of France, that “model of integration?”

An item from a BBC report this summer should settle the question:

“Crowds of youths have thrown stones at French police and set fire to cars in a second night of disturbances in the Paris suburb of Trappes. The trouble was sparked by the arrest of a man whose wife was told by police on Thursday to remove an Islamic face-covering veil, banned in public. He has been accused of trying to strangle the officer. Up to 300 people attacked a police station in Trappes on Friday night where the man was being held.”

Not for nothing, but methinks Ms. Marios’s staff might want to review the briefing notes they prepare for her before she finds occasion to pontificate in public. For them, and the rest of Quebec, this is getting embarrassing. And it seems to be going around.

In a recent column, my former colleague, the Globe’s Jeffry Simpson worried that Quebec’s leadership appears a tad unhinged, as Ms. Marois and company begin to “secularize” their civil service à la France. “These are the kind of policies that make Quebec look intolerant and slightly crazy in pursuit of some notional idea of the Quebec identity,” he wrote. “After all, the number of non-francophone employees of the province is tiny. From a practical point of view, this (charter of values) and the laws that might flow from it represent a fake solution to a non-problem.”

For Ontario, at least, this phony fix is turning into an opportunity.

“We don’t care what’s on your head,” an advertisement for Lakeridge Health of Oshawa reads. “We care what’s in it . . .Our focus is on safety and quality, and we’re looking for people like you to join our team of health professionals.”

If Ms. Marois cares nothing for most of what’s guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, she should nonetheless scrutinize Section 6, Subsection 2, which reads: “Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right (a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and (b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.”

It’s mighty tough to draw the wrong conclusion from that.

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