How Quebec can get its mojo back - Focus on prosperity, not politics

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

For decades, Quebec and its governments have been petulant and demanding. The tendency has been there since at least the first avowedly separatist Parti Quebecois government, elected in 1976. That habit continued regardless of the party in power, and of course, depending on the party, there was always the threat to separate.

The new Quebec premier, Philippe Couillard, has hinted that he has little interest in such political games. True, he is on record that he wants Quebec's 'distinct society' recognized formally by other provinces. However, Couillard later said he would not push for new constitutional talks, ones where that perennial Quebec demand would once again be present and problematic.

That willingness to avoid constitutional wrangling is useful, especially given that Couillard would be better advised to stick to his election promise to restore Quebec to prosperity.

For one thing, the 'rest of Canada' is less likely than ever to cater to provincial politicians in Quebec. They no longer need to, in part because the balance of the population has been shifting to Ontario and to the West for decades.

In 1980, the year of Quebec's first referendum on separation, Quebec accounted for 27 per cent of Canada's population; that dropped to 25 per cent by 1995 (at the time of the second referendum) and 23 per cent by 2013.

By contrast, in 1980, British Columbia and Alberta represented 20 per cent of the country's population, but by 2013 accounted for almost one-quarter (24.5 per cent) of all Canadians. (The Saskatchewan-Manitoba share has dipped slightly but the overall Western share is up due to B.C. and Alberta's growth.) Ontario's share of the country's population has also grown, from 36 per cent in 1980 to 37 per cent by 1995 to 39 per cent by 2013.

The ramifications of the population shift away from Quebec are potentially profound. Whereas Ontario and the four Western provinces constituted 64 per cent of the country's population in 1980, they now account for 70 per cent of Canada's population.

That six percent increase may not seem like much but it matters to parties trying to gain a majority in the House of Commons, which is increasingly likely to reflect Ontario-Western Canada interests than the 20th century Quebec-Ontario axis.

In 1980, Quebec's 75 seats meant it had almost 27 per cent of the seats in Parliament. After additional seats are added for the 2015 election, Quebec's new 78-seat share (out of 338) will represent just over 23 per cent. The West and Ontario (with 61 per cent of Parliament's seat in 1980) will have 225 seats in 2015 or almost 67 per cent of the 338 seats in Parliament.

Critically, beyond the raw numbers, Ontario is in the odd position of being a have-not province receiving equalization payments, yet remains a net contributor to the federal balance sheet. So more Quebec demands for money, power, and even soft recognition might well hit a brick wall of opposition or indifference in Ontario like they have out West.

Which leads to this thought: Quebec's relative decline vis-à-vis the West and Ontario was not inevitable. While separatist politics were not the only factor in Quebec's decline, the rise of a political class that was both separatist and interventionist chased away investment. To use one recent example, consider corporate head office counts between 1990 and 2011. In that time, Montreal slipped to third place behind Toronto (which also lost some) and Calgary, which almost doubled its head office count since 1990.

It was not always thus. In a 1940 Royal Commission report on federal-provincial relations, the authors noted how prior to the Great Depression, Quebec's financial position was long considered to be the fiscal Gibraltar of Canadian provinces. The Great Depression ended by the time that report was issued, and post-war, Quebec and the rest of Canada blossomed again until about the 1970s. Then, the separatist and interventionist predilection had a predictable depressing effect upon Quebec's fortunes.

Now, la belle province is more famous for high taxes, deep debt, corruption, and a confused approach to entrepreneurship and investment that discourages energy and mining on the one hand while massively subsidizing private and government-owned businesses on the other.

Premier-elect Couillard has pledged to "put Quebec back on the path to prosperity." As well he should. Quebec was once an opportunity-based culture, prosperous and a net contributor to Confederation. Quebec's future could once again resemble its laudable past.

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