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Ottawa Citizen September 6, 2012

There isn’t much reason to celebrate the victory of Pauline Marois this week, but there is one very thin silver lining: She has promised that under her leadership, the Quebec government will stop propping up the province’s asbestos industry.

It’s one thing to allow the continued export of asbestos from Canada to countries such as India. It’s another for governments to actively work to keep that industry alive, as the federal government has done with its rogue international stance on the question of whether it should be listed as a dangerous substance. The Quebec government, under now-defeated premier Jean Charest, actually helped to revive the industry by providing a $58-million government loan to reopen the Jeffrey Mine.

All for the sake of a few hundred jobs.

The Marois government might find it difficult to extricate itself from its predecessor’s commitment to the mine. But its public stand against the subsidy is laudable.

Whenever governments decide to support particular businesses in defiance of the market, they distort that market and dampen the competitive forces that spur on productivity and innovation. Governments should, in all but a few extraordinary cases and circumstances, resist the temptation to use public money to prop up any industry — never mind a moribund one that’s an ethical minefield and a national embarrassment. The Canadian government may well be right in its insistence that chrysotile asbestos can be safe if properly handed. But it’s possible — indeed, likely — that workers in countries that import asbestos won’t always handle it safely. And even if it were possible to control conditions in other countries so we could make sure our exports were ethically sound, the decline of the industry in Canada suggests there isn’t much reason to bother.

If the asbestos industry can’t survive without government help, then it shouldn’t survive at all.

The decision to oppose the mine loan might have cost the PQ at least one seat: Richmond, which contains the town of Asbestos. The PQ candidate there lost on Sept. 4 by a mere 269 votes. The Liberal who won is the daughter of the MNA who made the announcement about the loan to the mine, back in the spring, before he retired. It’s possible that the PQ could have won the seat had it pandered to the asbestos lobby. But it’s also possible that there are many Quebecers, in the Richmond riding and elsewhere, who were sick of the pandering, and annoyed to see their government spend their money on a dying industry.

Ottawa Citizen

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