Q&A with Jean-Yves Duclos: Economist and new cabinet minister

Q&A: Jean-Yves Duclos, former head of the economics department at Laval University and now minister of families, children and social development

Jean-Yves Duclos was the director of the economics department at Laval University and president-elect of the Canadian Economics Association before joining the Liberal Party of Canada as a candidate in the federal election. On Oct. 19 he was one of only two Liberal MPs elected in Quebec City; on Nov. 4, he was named the minister of families, children and social development. Laval University economist and Maclean’s contributor Stephen Gordon spoke with Duclos about what drew him into politics, his electoral victory and the Liberals’ economic platform.

Q: Congratulations on your victory. As you know, you are the first federal Liberal to win in Québec since Gilles Lamontagne in 1980, and the analysts I read never thought you had much of a chance. Are you as surprised as everyone else seems to be?

A: Yes, I was also surprised, although we had worked quite hard in the last six months and so we did feel that something was happening. But we couldn’t tell by how much it would affect the results at the polls.

Q: You have a very enviable research publication record in economics, but those of us who have followed your career more closely know that you’ve always been interested in economic policy and its application. But most policy-oriented economics professors are usually happy to limit themselves to offering advice and writing reports. What made you decide to make the leap into electoral politics?

A: There are two reasons. The first is that it comes from the heart. I did feel, as many of my colleagues in the department and also elsewhere, that we could do better. I became conscious about a year and a half ago that it was becoming a bit too much—the political climate, the scientific climate, the social climate. All of that could be better. I thought that something had to change, and I looked around and found that I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

The second reason is that I wanted to stop telling myself that others should do better. It’s a natural tendency to say, “Why don’t they do otherwise? Why don’t they do better?” So at some point you say, “Maybe I should try to work a bit harder myself in order to make those things happen.”

Q: Did you give any thought to provincial politics?

A: I have a lot of esteem for provincial politics. As you know, provincial politics is more directly involved with the daily lives of our citizens, so it’s probably the most important level of government, along with the municipalities.

But things happen at the federal level too, and they have an impact on our lives, although it may take a bit more time. I also felt that Quebecers in particular needed to be more present in Ottawa. We have a role to play, and if we don’t play it, then the only people we can blame is ourselves.

Q: One of the great freedoms we have as professors is the freedom to speak our minds. Politicians must be more circumspect, and sometimes find themselves saying the opposite of what they think. You haven’t been at this for very long, but how are you finding these challenges?

A: The first thing the Liberal party told me when they eventually found out that I was quite serious about helping out, is that I should be aware that this is a team game. If you’re not interested in a team game, then stay in academia. You can be a speed skater if you wish, and that’s great if you like that. But if you want to play politics, you want to play a team game and therefore you have to accept that you won’t always have the puck. The puck will sometimes be held by other people, and you should accept that.

So I said, “Yes, I recognize that,” and that also means that sometimes I have to make compromises. This is fine, because there are so many issues in society and in our economy that there will always be one with which you are not in total agreement with the views of others.

Q: As I recall, the broad themes of the Liberal economic platform were in place before you announced your candidacy. I think it’s safe to say you support the program, and obviously the new government’s priority will be to implement those measures. But I was wondering if there were other files where you think you could make a significant contribution during the course of the mandate, if not right away.

A: You’re right—when I became involved, when I became an official candidate six months ago, part of the platform was known. But not the details. At that time, as you might remember, the Liberal party was criticized by everyone. People were saying, “They’re not saying what they’re going to do. What are they waiting for? They have no plan, no content: it’s all image.” That’s what we were hearing six months ago, when I started this process.

Things of course changed over the last six months. What will happen after we take power on Nov. 4 will be a mixture of what we have already announced and what we feel over time should be done. It’s not only the platform, it’s also how to adjust to evolving circumstances.

I think my preparation as an academic, my knowledge of others and my ability to listen to the views of others should be helpful.

Q: Is there any particular file that isn’t part of the Liberal platform that you would try to advocate or try to work toward?

A: Of course I have a bit more preparation and perhaps a bit more interest in issues of economic development, taxation, poverty, inequality and the role of science.

Q: So you don’t have a particular measure that you want to put forward.

A: No, I think it’s a broad set of measures.

Q: I don’t want to go through the entire platform, but there are a couple of points I’d like to ask you about. You may recall a story from Le Soleil a couple of weeks ago about the Liberal infrastructure program in which the journalist asked four economics professors for their opinion. I was one of them. We all said that in principle, yes, expanded public infrastructure could increase economic activity, but we were a bit skeptical about how it would work in practice. More public spending on snowmobile trails and hockey stadiums is not going to add to our productive capacity. Do you know how these concerns will be addressed as the program is rolled out?

A: That’s an excellent point. There are types of infrastructure that are more conducive to long-term economic development and those are what we hope to identify, in collaboration with others. A very important element of the attitude that you see nowadays, in the attitude of Trudeau and I think also in the attitude of the whole team is this preoccupation with working with others, including the identification of those projects that will be most conducive for long-term economic development. We already know quite a few: public infrastructure in transportation, the green economy and social infrastructure are examples of things that will be good for the next year, the next five years and for the long term—10, 20 years.

Q: As far as I can tell, the Liberal Plan A is to go into deficit for a few years, use the extra spending to promote growth, and then use the extra revenues generated by that growth to return the budget to balance. If that doesn’t happen, what is Plan B? Will you reduce expenditures, increase taxes or just put off balancing the budget?

A: The announced deficits are both prudent and modest, in the sense of being less than 1/200ᵗʰ the size of the economy, 1/6ᵗʰ the size of the last government’s deficits. So it’s quite modest, and prudent also, because in our calculations we assume that our infrastructure investment would have no impact on the economy. We also took into account the latest predictions of the Bank of Canada and the Parliamentary Budget Office, which said that we were probably going to be in deficit this year. So we were very prudent, and therefore it’s possible and perhaps likely that those deficits will be lower than what we’re willing to incur. We’re not saying that we have to incur them, but we’re willing to go up to those deficits, $10 billion maximum a year, if we have to. But as you said, if things became very bad, then at least we will have invested now, so things will be less bad than they would have been otherwise.

Q: The Liberals have reserved judgment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pending the release of the final text. Can you think of any potential deal-breakers that would justify refusing to ratify the TPP?

A: We’ve announced our strong commitment to free trade; we believe very strongly in free trade, so it’s extremely important to make sure that this sort of deal goes forward. At the same time, we want to be prudent, and want to look very closely at the details. The principle is great, it’s fine, and we support it entirely, but the details are also important. So we want to spend the time to look at them. And there will be time, because as you know, those deals take a lot of time before being finalized and approved and we want to use that time intelligently.

Q: Offhand, can you think of one thing that most concerns the Liberals, or is it just that you want to make sure?

A: We just want to make sure.

Q: One of the economic legacies of the Conservatives’ time in power is a level of revenues that is a smaller share of GDP than it’s been since before the Second World War. The Liberal platform doesn’t call for significantly higher tax revenues: the increase for high earners is offset by cuts lower down. Is this trend something you’ve given thought to?

A: That’s a very good question. I would rely on the views of people like you to say something intelligent on that.

Q: That actually is something that I’ve been following with fascination. I was wondering if you’d heard any talk of reversing that trend. Recovering those two GST points is going to be hard to do, politically.

A: Yes, that’s correct.

Q: Have you had a chance to speak with Mr. Trudeau, either before, during or since the election? What are your impressions?

A: Well, since the election, no, as you might expect. As for my impressions, I’ll tell you the first time he phoned me was just after I became the official candidate, and the first thing he told me was, “Jean-Yves, I have a different style of leadership than Mr. Harper; I am a team person. I’m very keen on working with people, and not alone. That’s why I’m so glad [to have] people like you and the many others on this team who have a lot of experience who can contribute significantly to this new government. That’s why people like you are so welcome on our team.”

That’s what he first told me. At that time, I didn’t recognize the importance of that statement so much. During the course of the election I saw that he was extremely well-surrounded, and more important, he listens to people very carefully. I think that’s why he has gained so much in terms of respect and depth. The depth he has gathered is due in large part to his ability to listen to others.

Q: Did you have anything to do with the Liberals’ economic advisory council? I think that was in place before you came on the scene.

A: Distantly. I was aware of it, and I knew a couple of the people on it, but I didn’t have any direct involvement.

Q: Politics and geography being what they are, you will have an important role as one of only two Liberal MPs in the greater Quebec City area, regardless of whether or not you’re in cabinet. This includes re-establishing the Liberal Party of Canada as an electoral force in the region. Have you and Joël Lightbound [elected in the neighbouring Quebec City riding of Louis-Hébert] had a chance to talk about the task before you?

A: Yes, our goal is clearly to be useful in this region and in our respective ridings. That’s why we stood for election, and that’s what we want to do: to build a strong Liberal base. But more important, to make sure that this base is useful for the region. I think the Liberal attitude toward our society and the economy will be very useful to our region in particular. That’s why we’re so glad to have the chance to head to something better in the future.

Q: So when do you go to Ottawa?

A: I’m not sure yet. I’m very happy now, because I have a lot more free time than I should have. The storm is coming very quickly—I see it’s not very far—but it’s not yet there. I still have a couple of days to relax, to breathe.

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