Monday, September 21, 2009

Quebec Pays Dearly for its Democratic Deficit

Last Friday was a sad day for democracy in Quebec. The National Assembly had resumed its work, and after only three days the Liberal Government invoked closure in order to adopt an amendment that would modify the Balanced Budget Act and allow for a return to budget deficits without any clear plan on how the Province would emerge from its sea of red ink.

What I find troubling in this measure is how political power has become so concentrated in the Premier’s Office at a time when we should be questioning Premier Jean Charest’s capacity to manage Quebec’s economy. Moreover, the false majority that our electoral system bestowed on the Quebec Liberals (PLQ) came about as a result of the systemic discrimination of the Action Democratic of Quebec (ADQ), the only political party that concerned itself with the long-term consequences of Quebec’s status as the Canadian province with the highest per capita debt in Canada.

Looking back at the 2008 General Election, despite the Province being mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression, Mr. Charest called the election in order to take advantage of the ADQ’s weakness in the polls. Having dropped from 31% to 16% of the popular vote, the ADQ would bear the full brunt of our voting system’s discriminatory practices and have their seat count reduced from 41 to 7 seats. In other words, a 50% drop in popular support brought about an 83% drop in seats in the National Assembly.

What is remarkable is the PLQ’s rise from minority to majority government status came about as a result of significant drop in the participation rate during the last election. In short, the Liberal victory did not come about by its ability to attract swing voters, but by the fact that approximately 600,000 voters who voted for the ADQ in the 2007 General Election did not bother to go to the polls.

It seems that a disturbing new trend has emerged in Canadian politics: berate your opponents while hanging on to core supporters so that the margin of victory results not from increasing voter support but from the increasing numbers of the opponent’s supporters deciding not to cast their votes.

In Quebec, from 1994 to 2008, the PLQ was the more successful of the two major political parties in keeping a greater percentage of their core support as the participation rate began to plummet: the participation rate in general elections fell from 81% to 57% of the electorate. During the same time period, support for the PLQ fell from 36% to 24% of registered voters, while the support for the Parti Quebecois (PQ) fell from 36% to 20% of registered voters. In absolute numbers, support for PLQ declined by 371,652 voters or 21%, and support for the PQ declined by 609,691 voters or 34%.

Taken together, the PLQ and the PQ had the support of 71% of registered voters in 1994. However, in 2008 the combined support fell to 44% of the registered electorate. Disturbingly, during the 14 year time period, the number of eligible registered voters increased by 845,346 or 17%, yet the number of electors voting for both parties decreased by 981,343 or 20%.

Clearly, the majority of Quebec voters has moved beyond the sterile nationalist/federalist debate but are held hostage by an electoral system that makes it extremely difficult for emerging parties to gain and hold support. For example, of the five general elections the ADQ has contested, four of them have resulted in severe reductions of the number of seats that the ADQ would have won if the representation in the National Assembly accurately reflected the popular vote.

Not surprisingly, neither the PLQ nor PQ has shown much interest in adopting a proportional voting system despite the fact the public has been consulted four times over the last thirty years. In each instance the organizing committee tabled a report recommending the adoption of a proportional voting system.

In short, rather than working to give better representation of the diversity of political views in Quebec and to increase the participation of the electorate in the electoral process, the PLQ and PQ have conspired to perpetuate the status quo by shrinking the electorate to those who remain willing to choose between what the majority of the electorate believe to be two unsatisfactory options.

Looking at the state of the Province’s finances, the alternation of the two governing parties has not produced much in the way of prudent fiscal management. Back in 1970, when the Liberals were in power, Quebec’s accumulated provincial debt was almost nonexistent, standing at $2.3 billion. Since then, it has grown at a rate on average of $2.7 billion annually, reaching a summit of $130 billion at the end of March, 2009. More so, if we use currently accepted accounting practices and include the debt incurred by other government bodies, which would establish the accumulated debt to be approximately $150 billion according to the Montreal Economic Institute. Add in Quebec’s portion of the federal debt, and we reach a level of debt that is more than 80% of the Province’s GDP.

If the highest level of indebtedness is not cause for concern, the recent performance of Quebec’s public pension plans should. In 2008, the public portfolio managed by the Caisse Dépôt et Placement lost 27% of its value ($40 billion), and in the first six months of 2009 did not generate anything in the way of returns.

Looking forward, the Quebec Government anticipates another $12 billion of deficits during the next four fiscal years. This figure does not include a reduction in equalization payments from the federal government, which will inevitably incur as the major provincial contributors, Alberta and British Columbia, are now experiencing record deficits of their own.

To make things worse, Quebec’s rapidly aging population will reduce the Province’s capacity to generate economic growth from productivity gains and will only add to spiraling costs of providing healthcare.

Undoubtedly, these huge challenges will require tough decisions and innovative approaches. Unfortunately, neither of the two governing options has much to say that is relevant to the nature of the problems. It is as though we are stuck in the 1970s: the Liberals are still talking about mega hydro-electricity projects and the PQ is still proposing the panacea of independence.

To repeat a common theme in my posts, it is the tyranny of dead ideas that is the major factor in bringing about what has been referred to as the historical period we are now living in Quebec—the quiet decline.

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