Viewpoint: Asymmetry – at every level!

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Added on 9 December 2004 in Viewpoints

Asymmetry - at every level!

Original text signed by Benoit Labonté, president and chief executive officer of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, published in Le Devoir and Le Journal de Québec.

December 9, 2004

Asymmetry - at every level!

This fall, at a First Ministers' Meeting, the word "asymmetrical" took the opportunity to reintegrate the vocabulary commonly used to describe federal-provincial relations. Its come-back was particularly welcomed in Quebec - associated with the successful application of the principles of flexibility and efficiency in the management of relationships between the two higher levels of government.

The concept of asymmetrical federalism has been praised so highly it is tempting to hope the Canadian government and the provinces will be generous enough to extend the benefits of asymmetry to their relationships with the country's cities. Why, in fact, should cities not be treated in different ways, with elements such as their revenue sources and responsibilities reflecting their own reality? In short, the idea would not be to treat cities of different sizes in an inequitable manner but, as with federal-provincial relationships, to adapt approaches to the individual situation of each one.

We formulate this desire knowing full well it is not likely to be well received. Too often, unfortunately, cities and rural communities tend to equate different treatment with unequal treatment. This is why the urban agenda of the federal government has moved gradually from major cities to cities and communities, while the Quebec government persists in talking about the importance of the economic development of the regions with no apparent regard for the fact that half of Quebec's GDP originates in metropolitan Montreal, whose territory overlaps - completely or partially - five "administrative regions."

The idea of creating greater asymmetry in the relationships between cities and their provinces is nevertheless promising - for all communities - particularly if we look at it in terms of the return.

We've said it many times: urban centres are more than ever at the heart of economic growth and wealth creation. Talent and investment tend to be concentrated in cities, and competition between them is increasingly fierce. Concrete evidence of this concentration is the tendency of immigrants to Canada to flock to Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, while other destinations receive very few.

Faced with this new reality, there are two possible responses: ignore the situation or adopt relevant development strategies. The asymmetry we have in mind would fall into the second category.

Metropolitan Montreal is the economic engine of Quebec. With 48% of the population, according to the Montreal Metropolitan Community, the metropolis generates 50% of Quebec's gross domestic product and sends $25 billion in revenues to Quebec City - or about 55% of the government's autonomous revenues. In this way, Montreal helps finance public services far beyond its borders.

Given Montreal's apparent "facility" for producing wealth - on the Quebec scale, that is - we might be tempted to conclude that Montreal is in need of nothing and that prioritizing the regions is actually the way to go. Unfortunately, when we compare Montreal's performance to that of other cities - in North America or elsewhere - we are forced to conclude that Quebec does not benefit enough from its metropolis.

In fact, what would Quebec's public finances look like if Montreal's per capita GDP was comparable to that of Toronto (%) or Boston (ힾ%)? One thing is certain: all of Quebec would benefit. Yet, unbelievably, the very idea of making the development of the metropolis a Quebec priority is still taboo. That is why the return in force of the concept of asymmetry gives Quebec an opportunity to expect more from its metropolis - insofar, at least, as the province will finally - and resolutely - provide it with the necessary tools.

For example, the Quebec government will soon have to decide how to use its share of the gasoline tax money transferred to it by the federal government: redistribution on a per capita basis, on the basis of need? On the basis of consumption and the use of public transit? In this context, we believe Quebec would be well advised to place the notion of return at the centre of its deliberations: which method would generate the biggest return for all Quebecers?

This could mean concentrating the groundbreaking ceremonies in certain areas. But if it then enabled all Quebecers to benefit from healthier public finances and even, perhaps, a lighter tax burden, who could claim that asymmetry was unfair?