Objects in the mirror may be closer than they seem

This article reviewing the keynote address given by Jean-François Lisée during the recent conference organized by Glendon on Ontario-Quebec relations was authored by journalist Magdaline Boutros of the publication L’Express de Toronto and has been reprinted by permission.

The Quebec model exists and is doing a fine job, according to Jean-François Lisée who came to its defence Feb. 23 at an annual colloquium on Ontario-Quebec relations organized by the Chair in Quebec Studies of Glendon College. “Quebec seems to be one of the great parties to Confederation that is not as strong as it should be,” the former advisor to Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard admitted at the outset. But Quebec is in the process of gradually catching up with Ontario, said Lisée.

Right: Jean-François Lisée

In the context of his lecture titled “Objects in the Mirror May Be Closer than They Appear,” Jean-François Lisée tried to put a quick halt to a number of pre-conceived ideas about Quebec. One by one he overturned the popular beliefs which hold that the Quebec model impoverishes its population, that the Quebec government is too unwieldy and costly and that Quebecers are overtaxed.

Lisée defended Quebec, stating that, during the last decade, it grew significantly richer. Within the OCDE, only Ireland experienced greater GDP growth per inhabitant than Quebec. Quebecers remain poorer than their Canadian and American neighbours, but the gap is constantly narrowing. The wealth gap between Quebec and Canada went from 11 per cent in 1992 to eight per cent in 2002, while the wealth gap between Quebec and the US went from 26 per cent in 1992 to 21 per cent in 2002.

These figures are only averages, however, said Lisée. While Quebecers are still less well-off than their neighbours, the society in which they live is more egalitarian. Indeed, Quebec enjoys the most equitable distribution of wealth among its citizens.

“The typical Quebec employee thus possesses a greater share of the wealth of his community than his Ontario or New York State equivalent,”said Lisée. The median income in Quebec in 1997 was $20,500, while in Canada it was slightly below $20,300.

To arrive at a valid measurement of relative wealth, a comparison must also be made of the living costs that have a greater impact on low-income citizens. Living in Quebec costs significantly less (lower housing and hydro costs). And so, the 25 per cent of the poorest Quebecers actually have a higher standard of living than their counterparts in Canada and the United States, said Lisée.

In terms of the public service, the Quebec government at first glance would seem to be considerably more unwieldy than the Ontario government. While in Ontario there are eight public servants per 1,000 inhabitants, this number swells to 12 public servants per 1,000 in habitants in Quebec.

Lisée urges, however, that the comparison be pursued to the end. Municipal officers in Ontario assume a part of the tasks assigned to the provincial level in Quebec (in particular, social assistance). Quebec assumes a part of the administrative tasks which, in the other provinces, fall under the responsibility of the federal government, such as GST administration, labour management, the [Quebec] Pension Board and selection of some immigrants.

It is therefore normal that the Quebec public service should be significantly larger. When adjustments are made in terms of the number of responsibilities, the gap between Ontario and Quebec drops from 50 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

With respect to taxation, Quebec businesses and taxpayers paid $2.8 billion more in income and other taxes in 2001 than their Ontario counterparts. But did they subsequently get their money’s worth? Lisée thinks they did. The social safety net is more developed in Quebec, in particular with $7 daycare, drug insurance, student scholarships, private education grants, etc. For the $2.8 billion more that Quebecers paid in income and other taxes, they received $4.1 billion in additional services compared to their neighbours in Ontario. “What clearly emerges from this is that, for each dollar paid in taxes, Quebecers receive more services than Ontarians,” Lisée said. “It can be argued that they should put their money somewhere else; we can and must try to make the government more efficient and more flexible, but it cannot be claimed that Quebecers have a bad return on their public investment.”