PQ leader Pauline Marois stops to talk at a campaign stop in Quebec.
Credits: MAXIME DELAND/QMI AGENCY
OTTAWA -- Quebecers go to the polls Tuesday and the odds seem good, at least after the ballots are all counted, the separatist Parti Quebecois will hold power and Pauline Marois will become the province's first female premier.
Does that mean the rest of Canada ought to be worried about a new "separatist threat"? No.
Marois knows perfectly well that fewer than one in three Quebecers even want a referendum to begin with and that just 28% would vote "yes" to separation from Canada.
Now, a new government in Quebec City could, certainly, ask for some new arrangements with Ottawa. Both Marois and Francois Legault, the leader of the surprisingly popular Coalition Avenir du Quebec (CAQ), think the fiscal arrangement between Canada and Quebec should be changed.
They may find, to their surprise, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper also believes that Ottawa ought to do more to get out of the way of the provinces and he'd be perfectly prepared to let Quebec have more responsibilities - and pay more of their own share - in certain key areas.
But this is not a separatist threat. This is the same tug-of-war between Ottawa and the provinces we've seen throughout Canada's history.
No, the big threat to Canada emanating these days from Quebec is its inability to pay its own way.
As colleague John Robson noted on these pages at the beginning of the election campaign, Quebec has always been a net beneficiary of the federal government's equalization program every year since its inception in 1957. It is the only province yet to record at least one year without being a "have-not."
In 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars, Quebec has received $146 billion more in equalization than it has contributed.
As Robson noted, "This year alone, Quebec will take $7.4 billion from equalization while paying in just $2.9 billion. The $4.5 billion it gets free and clear certainly helps the provincial government spend $62.5 billion a year to buy votes with things like subsidized daycare and tuition. Without it, the deficit of debt-ridden Quebec would more than double."
This has become a bit of sore point with others in the federation. Danielle Smith of Alberta's Wildrose Party said during Alberta's spring provincial election that Albertans were scratching their heads why their wealth helps pay for daycare and university that's cheaper elsewhere than in their own province. Smith, of course, lost to Progressive Conservative Alison Redford but the frustration Smith articulated with Quebec's profligacy should not be ignored.
Marois has no plan to deal with this imbalance. Indeed, she would spend more and subsidize more in the mistaken belief that increasing taxes on the wealthy would pay for it all. Legault and incumbent Liberal Party of Quebec Premier Jean Charest have, to their credit, put more focus on improving the economic vitality of Quebec.
Canada has been immeasurably enriched by Quebec in non-monetary ways. It is the province that has given Canada five prime ministers, its first astronaut, inventors, deep thinkers, authors, dancers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, singers and, of course, dozens upon dozens of the greatest hockey players to ever lace up skates. Quebec has added to Canada's wealth with poutine, tourtiere, Perce Rock and the splendour of the Saguenay.
But for all that, the government in the National Assembly in Quebec City has, over five decades, been a blight on Canada's national balance sheet.
Let the premier who will be elected Tuesday begin to address that imbalance.