The Robillard Report: Courageous common sense

Par Beryl Wajsman le 27 novembre 2014

Lucienne Robillard's report on cutting government spending and waste is the kind of courageous common sense that comes too rarely yet is so needed. Aside from the specifics, the importance of her work is that it highlights where the Quebec statist model can be cut without affecting the social security programs that we have all paid for during our working lives and which monies were supposed to be treated in trust. Indeed, it demonstrates that dramatic cuts are necessary if we are to keep our social contract viable and our credit worthiness stable.

In the broad strokes, she has taken on many of Quebec's sickly sacred cows. She calls for cuts to subsidizing failing industries; reducing our bloated public sector unions and ending discretionary spending by politicians as well as imposing ceilings on some of our politically motivated spending such as grants to foreign students from France.

Like Ibsen's hero who warned his townsfolk that the water they were drinking was poisoned, Robillard is already being colored as an "Enemy of the people" as the Norwegian playwright titled his masterwork. In fact she is a heroine. She has pulled back the facade of Quebec Inc. and revealed its bankruptcy. Failure to heed the message of the Robillard Report imperils us all.

The hypocrisy of the status quo was evident in some of the first responses. Robillard recommends slashing subsidies to failing industries. As an example, cutting $300 million from the money going to pork producers. Pork prices are falling dramatically yet Quebec is still funding pig farms simply because of the pressure from powerful agricultural lobby the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA). Members of the livestock division of the UPA staged dramatic demonstrations several years ago, dressed in garbage bags, calling for higher protected prices for Quebec beef. If that had happened, this province would be demanding higher prices than Alberta. It was untenable. And while these producers were crying poverty, the reality was that their average net worth was north of a $1 million each. Perhaps the reason is that, as Robillard pointed out in her report, Quebec gives out twice as much in income stabilization and insurance premiums as the other provinces and three times as much as farmers get in the U.S. In direct terms she calls for an end to subsidizing failure.

We have written often in this space that solutions to our underfunded healthcare system must start in cutting our bloated bureaucracy. Fifty-two percent of the money we spend goes to paying bureaucrats with no connection to the delivery of medical care. Government after government has been too scared to take on public sector unions because of votes. Robillard takes dead aim at them. She calls for cuts to transfers to municipalities because spending at that level has increased an average of 5.8 per cent a year while provincial spending will rise only 1.9 per cent this year and 1.3 per cent next year. Provincial transfers have been increasing at an average of 8.2 per cent. And she pulls no punches in identifying the cause - public sector workers. The same union entrenchment corroding our health system is destroying our municipal budgets. Fully 56 per cent of the budgets of our cities and towns goes for salaries and those salaries are higher than provincial workers. Robillard suggests giving municipalities more legal powers to bargain with their unions and bring down costs. It's about time. The image of work crews repairing a street where two people are working and two are "supervising" should make the problem clear as the light of day.

It was not all tough news however. The commission pointed out that these measures can be done without increasing taxes because, and this came as a surprise, overall there is $1.3 billion in surpluses sitting in Municipalities bank accounts. The Robillard commission even came up with a plan that makes the rise in daycare costs easier on families earning less than $75,000 a year.

Treasury Board President Martin Coiteux had his own cuts in the works. As sharp and bright as he is, the Robillard Report should make achieving his goals easier. Like a blocking guard for a running back.

But it is not just about the numbers. It is about changing Quebec's mindset. It was pointed out over the weekend that two previous government reports - the Pronovost and Saint-Pierre - affirmed that the reasons for the Quebec Inc. model having been started have long ago been lost in the ether. The Robillard commission reaffirmed that our problem today is even worse than forgotten motivations and accountability. Today, the report concludes, not only does the government not know how many programs it’s paying for, it has no idea whether they are useful.

As federal Treasury Board president Lucienne Robillard built a reputation as being tough, smart and on the money. She has brought her wisdom and experience to the Quebec scene. We need to listen and to act.

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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