Saturday, December 4

William Watson: Premier François Xi Legault thought


Legault is pursuing ever greater economic nationalism involving stronger buy-Quebec policies, including’controlled certification’

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It was a little jarring to read in the Washington Post last week that the core members of the COP26 Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) that Parker Gallant writes about elsewhere on this page were “Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Greenland, Ireland, Quebec, Sweden and Wales.” Those places are countries, I thought, reading too quickly. But Quebec is not a country: we had two emotional referendum campaigns establishing that. Then I noticed that Greenland and Wales were on the list, too. It turns out lots of COP26 attendees were not countries. So my Quebec-federalist heart could stop fluttering.

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But it’s interesting that one part of Canada has signed onto BOGA while no other part, and not the whole either, has done so. As the Post noted, “The four biggest oil-producing countries — the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Canada — have not joined the alliance.” In Central Canada we hardly ever think of ourselves as the world’s fourth biggest oil-producing country, so it’s good to be reminded that: a) we are; and b) that’s how other countries see us .

Canada as a whole presumably did not join BOGA mainly because a requirement for membership is to have banned new oil and gas drilling, which Quebec has done, even though, as Gallant points out, as little as eight years ago its current premier said the province (not a word he likely would use) had an obligation to try to free itself from foreign energy sources. Though Ottawa is doing its best to drive the oil and gas industry into the dirt, it has not yet banned it, so no BOGA for now.

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Quebec’s habit of acting like a country, though its voters have twice indicated they don’t want to be one, is continuing in other ways, as well. On language law and unilateral constitutional amendments it is going its own independent way without a peep or tweet from anyone at the federal level.

And Premier François Legault announced on his return from Glasgow — yes, he was there too — that his party will be pursuing a policy of ever greater economic nationalism involving stronger buy-Quebec policies, including what the Montreal Gazette translated as “controlled certification” to help consumers identify Quebec products.

The government will also table a bill (another one!) to ensure Crown corporations and agencies buy more from Quebec suppliers. The Gazette reported the premier as saying: “The government is the largest client in Quebec. My goal is that there be more Quebec content.” The government will also, the Gazette reports, “assist Quebec businesses in their exports.”

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Do you suppose it might have to support Quebec’s exports because other jurisdictions are following their own Quebec-style buy-local policies, which export supports have to overcome? In which case, wouldn’t mutual disarmament be a better solution than assistance to offset each other’s protectionism?

In some circles, government-led protectionism, even as practised by sub-national governments, will be seen as an enlightened new style of policy, one that faces up to the supposed intellectual bankruptcy of neo-liberalism, responds to the breakdown of supply chains and restores the public sector to its rightful guiding-hand role, taking over from the discredited invisible hand of the market.

What bunkum! (Bunkum is a combination of bunk and hokum.)

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Far from being new and innovative, protecting local pals is the oldest policy trick in the book, dating back to Babylonia and, if we only had written records, probably before that. (My guess is Noah faced intense moral pressures to source from local ark suppliers.) It is also one of the most supposedly commonsensical: what could be more sensible than helping out local folk and “keeping the money in the local economy”? People probably found that idea attractive even before the word “economy” or any of its roots existed.

The more complicated, even sophisticated, idea is to depend on other people and jurisdictions, an idea that admittedly has less appeal in a society where “the other” is not so trusted. But specialization and trade allow even small places — like Quebec, like Canada — to benefit from access to a vast range of products and services.

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Yes, international supply chains are — at least temporarily — less reliable than they have been in recent decades. So are national ones for that matter, where the problem is shortages of truckers and other kinds of workers. But, you know, most businesses are aware of supply chain problems and are busy finding workarounds of one kind or another. They don’t need government ministries populated by credentialed generalists to explain how best to solve them.

What harm could there be in a program that simply lets Quebecers know when the products they’re considering buying were produced locally? One, it’s not necessary. Many consumers do have a buy-local mindset, so Quebec’s producers have every incentive to let their customers know when goods were produced here. But, two, “controlled certification” can easily become a trade weapon. Ottawa has fought a long battle with the US over rules requiring country-of-origin labelling for Canadian meat, including Quebec pork. What may seem innocent can easily slide into protectionism.

If the Quebec model, a forerunner of Xi Jinping economics, were so successful, my home province wouldn’t still be needing equalization payments.

Financial Post

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