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Quebec Budget Notice

Under leadership of the Coalition Avenir Quebéc (CAQ), the Quebec government released its budget for 2020 today. Maintaining provincial popularity a year and a half after election, Minister of Finance Éric Girard announced a balanced budget focused on green initiatives. It is worth noting that the Minister of the Environment will soon present his Plan for a Green Economy (PEV) 2030, which will benefit from funding of $6.2 billion continuing until March 2026.

Additionally, the 2.8 per cent real GDP growth in Quebec means that the government can afford spending $118.6 billion—an increase of 5.1 per cent from last year’s budget.

Building a green economy

This year’s budget announced an investment of over $6.2 billion over a period of six years to make Quebec an environmental leader, prepare the province for the effects of climate change and meet 2030 targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This direction fits into the “open for business” narrative of the CAQ, as the government will focus on attracting green investments and developing low-carbon sectors, as well as taking full advantage of Quebec’s hydroelectricity.

Those environmental commitments continue well into the public transportation sector, as the CAQ will invest $15.8 billion for electric public transit projects in Québec City, Gatineau, Montréal, Laval, Longueuil and Chambly. The government will also continue to support electric vehicle acquisition with their Roulez Vert program, with an investment of $1.4 billion over six years.

Wealth generation in the province will also be focused on the environmental transition. As such,the government will support businesses in the industrial sector with $1.3 billion to encourage decarbonization.

Education, Regions and Health

In the next five years, the government will implement policies totalling $5.8 billion, which include the following initiatives.

With this budget, the CAQ reminds Quebecers of their electoral promise to put money back into their pockets, with another step toward a single school tax rate that will return $182 million to homeowners this year alone.

The CAQ also continues to deliver on its promise to increase spending in education, with $1.5 billion invested, including $471M for new services and $550M to boost the number of college and university graduates.

While the CAQ, who is decidedly pro-business, will invest $1 billion over the next five years to improve business productivity and competitiveness, the government also reiterates its emphasis on supporting the regions with $1.5 billion to boost economic development and develop natural resources in those parts of the province.

With the novel coronavirus reaching Quebec recently, the government announced $5.4 billion of spending in health services, a 5.3 per cent from last year—with $1.1 billion for this year alone.

The government has released simultaneously its Infrastructure Plan of $15 billion.

Finally, while Eric Girard’s budget speech highlighted the government’s decision to focus on culture, the announcement should be put into perspective with the comparatively low investment of $407 million.

Quebec economic context

Remarkable economic growth and rising standards of living

Eric Girard boasted Quebec’s 2.8 per cent real GDP growth in 2019, a remarkable performance which contrasts with that of Ontario and the country federally for the same period. The government is projecting growth of 2 per cent for 2020.

Debt reduction

The government confirmed that the goal to decrease gross debt to 45 per cent of GDP is being achieved six years earlier than expected. The objective of reducing the debt representing accumulated deficits to 17 per cent of GDP is expected to be achieved by March 31, 2023—three years earlier than expected. Gross debt reduction will allow Quebec, among other things, to improve the financing of public services and invest more in infrastructure.

A balanced financial framework

The financial framework presents a budgetary balance, within the meaning of the Balanced Budget Act, of $1.9 billion in 2019-2020. The government forecasts a balanced budget in 2020-2021. The favourable economic situation makes it possible for the government to announce additional initiatives to further meet its commitments.

The spread of COVID-19 has revealed an epidemic of mistrust

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 8, 2020.

As the latest coronavirus outbreaks have reached us at home, Canadians’ concern has morphed into a growing hysteria. The virus will, no doubt, have some long and lingering effects on our economy and tragic consequences for some of our elderly and most vulnerable populations.

But in the grand scheme of things, the panic is unwarranted. While every Canadian should be careful to protect themselves and their families, the end of times this is not. COVID-19, like the other coronaviruses that came before it, will pass.

Here in Ontario, we are arguably more prepared than ever, thanks to the experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Our ministries of health — federal and provincial — have learned tough lessons from that episode, particularly regarding the breakdowns in communication which marred an effective response.

What’s more, thankfully, we in Canada also have the benefit of governments at every level who understand that a health crisis should be managed by scientists and experts, not politicians.

That said, while we can be confident in our governments’ response, the COVID-19 issue has revealed a larger problem: the epidemic of mistrust Canadians have in their public institutions. Over the past 30 years, there has been an observable decline in our collective confidence in institutions like government, “big business,” news media and democracy at large.

This trend is not unique to Canada but rather a problem throughout the developed world. Thirty years ago, 41 per cent of Americans trusted their federal government, “always or most of the time.” Last year, the same pollster found that number had dropped to 17 per cent. For specific institutions, the numbers are not much better. Over three decades, Americans’ confidence in the presidency and congress declined 34 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively.

Brexit, Donald Trump and other manifestations of populism are all results of this decline. And even in otherwise healthy democracies, this deficit of trust has damning implications in times of crisis; no better evidence of which is the ongoing reaction to the spread of COVID-19.

From the moment China alerted the WHO to cases of an unusual respiratory virus in the Wuhan region, suspicions abounded. After so many lies and half-truths to the world about even the smallest things, the Chinese government has made it impossible for anyone to trust them. So, when Beijing deployed a stream of apparatchiks to assure us that everything possible was being done to contain the virus, skepticism was the default response.

Iran, the country with the highest reported coronavirus death rate, has stubbornly refused to share information and delayed crucial action to manage the outbreak. What’s worse, recent events like the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 have eradicated Iranians’ trust in their leadership, and in turn their willingness to listen to the advice of health agencies and ministries.

In the West, our response to the crisis has been hampered by mistrust, as well. President Trump has done his best to “own” the crisis, appointing Mike Pence as the White House’s coronavirus czar and making an appearance in the press briefing room, which has been dormant since July.

But for all his best intentions — questionable as they are — the president’s actions have only served to stoke distrust and paranoia. On Wednesday night, Trump went so far as to suggest that the virus is a Democrat “hoax,” cooked up to hurt his chances for reelection. What does it say when the U.S. president questions the authenticity of an epidemic that has already claimed the lives of 12 of his fellow citizens?

In times like these, the rot of skepticism and mistrust can prove fatal.

Reading the National Advisory Committee’s report on SARS and public health, I was struck by the language that riddles the section on “systemic deficiencies” in Canada’s response.

Chief among these deficiencies were the absence of protocols, uncertainties about data ownership, inadequate capacity for investigation, lack of coordination and weak links between health stakeholders. Each of these factors is marked by a failure of communication, exacerbated by a culture of mistrust, delegitimized institutions and general paranoia.

How frightening then that, such is the time in which we are living, when we most need to trust, we find that we just can’t.

Family Business

This week on our International Women’s Day edition of Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith sat down with Ontario’s Minister of Children and Women’s Issues Jill Dunlop to shed light on human trafficking- an important issue that negatively impacts women across the province. Minister Dunlop, who is leading the charge on this serious file at Queen’s Park, talked about what she’s learned from her conversations with victims, survivors and front-line workers and how this has impacted the government’s policy direction on human trafficking.

Ontario Liberals are missing a crucial opportunity on road to renewal

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 2, 2020.

Two political debates in two countries, What a striking study in contrasts.

The first was the Democratic debate in Las Vegas. I wrote last week how Bloomberg’s entrance to the ring has revitalized the primary race, and how his first debate was about worthy of Vegas. Americans, it seems, agreed. The broadcast smashed ratings records with 19.7 million viewers, more than watched the Grammys or Golden Globes.

The second was the Ontario Liberal leadership “debate” on TVO – though I use the term loosely for it was really more like a kabuki performance of a debate. On both stages stood six candidates, but beyond that the two events could not have been more different.

The reason the OLP debate was such a farce is that it was over before it started.

By debate night, Steven Del Duca already had the race sewn up. Earlier this month, it was announced that he had accumulated an insurmountable lead of 62.5 per cent of delegates.

In the shadow of a national election, railway blockades and COVID-19 stories, the race that will lead to this coronation was generally a tepid and uninspiring affair, one now destined to end in a sad, forgotten convention centre when Liberals convene on March 7.

For a party deep in the wilderness and arguably in the grips of an identity crisis, a coronation is neither productive nor helpful. Sure, the Democratic primary looks messy, but at least it’s a real contest of real ideas. Is the Democratic Party a party of the left that will champion expensive and ambitious social programs? Or is it a party of the centre that will offer a home to disaffected Republicans?

The Ontario Liberals missed an important, perhaps even critical, opportunity on the road to renewal by avoiding a similar clash of visons and ideas. By falling in line, the Liberals have elected to carry on the legacy of the previous government, in which Del Duca served, most memorably as Minister of Transportation.

What many missed is the prize just might be worth winning after all. For a broke party without even official status, the Liberals were polling as high as 33 per cent in mid-January, narrowly besting the sitting government. If they could get the party’s act together – a tall but not impossible order — the next leader stands a chance of becoming premier. And yet the race failed to attract any of the rumoured heavyweights, so here we are.

Already, the PC party has been conducting focus groups about their presumptive challenger. These groups were reported to have been inconclusive. “Nobody knew who the hell he was,” as one source summed it up to the Star. That may very well be the appeal. Either way, the Liberals are now preparing to anoint a blank slate.

But there are termites in the Liberal house. When a pollster asked voters which party they would vote for on a generic ballot, the Liberals beat the PCs by six points. But when they asked the same question with leaders’ names attached, Del Duca’s Liberals lost to Doug Ford’s PCs – by seven points.

While it’s early days, and that’s only a single poll, the results of Thursday’s byelections were instructive. That said, it seems clear Ontario voters are not exactly in the grip of Del Duca-mania.

With the OLP race now a foregone conclusion, I have watched with interest as Bernie Sanders has pulled ahead in the Democratic primary. His rise has caused much consternation among the party’s establishment, who worry he may well become their Jeremy Corbyn – a progressive albatross around the necks of candidates all the way down the ballot.

In truth, there’s a strong case to be made for Bernie’s electability. In head-to-head national polling Sanders consistently tops Trump by a small but meaningful margin.

And besides, imagine if the Democrats had conducted their race with the same attitude as the OLP: They would have nominated former vice-president Joe Biden and sleepwalked into a second Trump term.

It seems Democrats remember the dangers of their 2016 coronation. Time will tell if the Liberal one works out any better.