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How much credit should we give Philippe Couillard for Quebec's booming economy?

Quebec hasn’t seen this much economic growth in almost 20 years. We take a closer look at the reasons why, and what the future holds for the province’s finances.

Government coffers may be full now, but experts warn not to overestimate wiggle-room

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, left, raises his glass of local beer with his wife Suzanne Pilote, Portneuf candidate Philippe Gasse and fair organiser Stephane Rheaume, Saturday in Neuville, Que. Couillard has emphasized his party's economic track record during the election campaign. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

François Legault, the current frontrunner in the Quebec election campaign, promised recently to be the "premier for the economy."

The problem, of course, is that during Philippe Couillard's four years as premier, the province's economy has roared to life. It grew last year at a pace unseen since 2000.

To Legault's claim, Couillard's Liberals have said, in effect, 'thanks, but the job is taken.'

Just how much credit, though, should voters be giving Couillard for an economic performance that includes an unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent, GDP growth of around 2 per cent and healthy government surpluses?

According to a number of economists, Couillard has benefited from a number of factors outside his control, including a resurgent North American economy and the modernization of Quebec's workforce.

But they are also ready to give his government credit for avoiding policies that would have squandered this good fortune.

Caption: François Legault said in early August he would be a "premier for the economy" if elected. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Two factors explain surpluses

When the Liberals took power in 2014, Quebec had gone through several years of anemic growth, hurt by a global economy destabilized by the European sovereign debt crisis.

The province's coffers were, as a result, feeling the pinch. Since the stock market crash of 2008, Quebec — like elsewhere in Canada — had posted a series of deficits and its debt was inching toward 55 per cent of the GDP.

As his first order of business, Couillard's finance minister, Carlos Leitão, dramatically cut government spending, especially in education and health care.

Around the same time, the U.S. economy began to turn around. That stimulated demand for Quebec goods (exports make up just under half of the province's nominal GDP), which in turn provided a fresh infusion of tax revenues.

"When you combine these two factors — two to three years of increased revenues and reduced spending increases — that explains why we're now posting significant surpluses," said Dominique Lapointe, a senior analyst with the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.

When the Liberals took power in 2014, Quebec had gone through several years of anemic growth. (The Quebec Economic Plan, March 2018)

Quebec's economy, in one sense, is no different from other provinces; its fate is largely reliant on the U.S.

But in past expansionary cycles, Quebec rarely achieved the same pace of growth as its provincial cousins (its generous social programs also meant it suffered less during down-cycle periods).

Now it's near the top of the pack, and outperforming its larger neighbour, Ontario.

So what changed?

Education and daycare: two revolutions

Quebec is enjoying the long-term effects of two ambitious social programs that have made its workforce more competitive, said Pierre Fortin, one of the province's best-known economists and an emeritus professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

The first was the modernization of its education system during the 1960s.

On the eve of the Quiet Revolution, Ontario had double the number of workers with a university degree than Quebec. According to Fortin's estimates, French-speaking Quebecers between the ages of 25-29 had, on average, less schooling than black Americans in 1960-1961.

"The increase in educational attainment has exploded in the last 50 years to the point where we have almost caught up to Ontario," Fortin said.

The election of Jean Lesage's government in 1960 heralded the beginning of the Quiet Revolution and the transformation of Quebec's workforce. (Radio-Canada)

French Quebecers' average years of schooling no longer lags well behind the rest of the country; around 25 per cent of Quebecers have a university degree, compared to 30 per cent in Ontario.

"One of the major consequences of this is that now our unemployment rate is on par with Ontario's," Fortin said.

The other major development that has allowed Quebec to capitalize on expansionary cycles of the economy is its subsidized daycare program, which has helped dramatically increase the number of women in the workforce.

A study conducted by Fortin and other leading economists found that in the first decade of its existence, Quebec's daycare program boosted the province's GDP by $5.1 billion and added just under $1 billion to federal and provincial coffers.

"It's really an incredible development and was an unanticipated consequence of the program," Fortin said.

"It helps explain why Quebec is not behind the other provinces when the North American economy is doing well."

Pauline Marois helped introduce Quebec's daycare program in 1997 while serving as education minister under premier Lucien Bouchard. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

What the horizon holds

Couillard, of course, can hardly take credit for the growth of the U.S. economy, nor for decisions taken 20, let alone 50, years ago.

But his government is lauded for taking measures that have helped create a more favourable investment environment.

In particular, it passed a series of tax cuts for small and medium-sized businesses. It also recently offered financial support to Quebec's steel and aluminum industries, which are coping with tariffs imposed by Donald Trump's administration.

"The government has a role in giving businesses the confidence to invest," said Mia Homsy, head of the Institut du Québec, a public policy think tank, and a former economic adviser to the Liberals.

"At the moment, the protectionist winds could cause uncertainty for businesses. It's up to the government to play a stabilizing role, which is what it is doing."

Whichever political party forms the next government will have to confront further uncertainty coming from the U.S.

The renegotiation of NAFTA could bring significant changes to Quebec's trade relations, and any escalation in Trump's trade dispute with China would be felt around the globe.

A large share of Quebec's exports are destined for the U.S. and the rest of Canada. (The Quebec Economic Plan, March 2018)

Moreover, Quebec is facing a workforce that is aging faster than other provinces, which translates to fewer workers paying income tax and more people using expensive health care services as they get older.

So while public finances in Quebec look pretty good at the moment, it would be a mistake for parties on the campaign trail to overestimate how much wiggle room actually exists.

Both Lapointe and Homsy estimate there is about $1 billion available for new spending initiatives this year.

Parties whose promises exceed that amount will have to explain where they'll get the additional funds, be it through cutting existing services, raising taxes or dipping into reserve funds.

Given the potential for economic volatility, these public-finance experts said the last option should be off the table.

"I think you have to be suspicious when there are a lot of costly promises," said Homsy.

"You have to really ask where is the money coming from. At the end of the day, there is only one person who is going to pay for them: the taxpayer."


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