The ADQ’s social and economic policies

by Bryan Breguet and François Vaillancourt 

Mario Dumont , leader of the rightist Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ),

The outcome of Quebec’s election in March was a surprise, in large part because of the remarkable showing of the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ). The old two-party system was broken as a third party emerged as the official opposition. But where does this usurper really stand? While much was made of its “autonomist” views – neither federalist nor sovereigntist – its leader, Mario Dumont, insisted that what really distinguished the ADQ from both the Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois (PQ) were its social and economic policies. Were they indeed so distinctive? That’s the question this article tries to answer.

The origins of the ADQ

Despite what is sometimes thought, the ADQ was not founded by Mario Dumont. The founder and first leader of the ADQ was Jean Allaire, like Dumont a former Liberal. In the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Allaire chaired a committee that wrote a report recommending a massive decentralization of powers. The Allaire Report’s program would have left the federal government with only five fields of exclusive jurisdiction: money, defence, customs, equalization and management of the common debt.1 The report was adopted by the Liberals in 1991, but was then set aside when the party chose to support the Charlottetown Accord. This led to a split, with supporters of the Allaire Report campaigning for the No when the Charlottetown Accord was put to a referendum in 1992. After the victory of the No side, the split grew wider, with the result that, led by Allaire and the former leader of the Young Liberals, Mario Dumont, the dissident Liberals created a new party, the ADQ. Allaire was elected its leader in March 1994 but, only one month later, he resigned for medical reasons and Dumont became leader. From then until now, there has been no other leader; indeed no leadership contest. From 1994 to 2002, he was the only ADQ member of the Quebec Assembly. In many ways Dumont is the ADQ.2

In the 1994 election, the ADQ managed to obtain just 6.5 per cent of the votes provincewide, with only its leader Dumont winning a seat. After the election, however, Premier Jacques Parizeau gave Dumont and his party a prominent role in the period leading up to the forthcoming referendum in an effort to rally the “soft sovereigntists” to the Yes side. This prominence got Dumont an invitation to participate in the 1998 election debate. In the election the ADQ vote rose to 11.8 per cent, but it failed to win any additional seats. But suddenly, in April and June 2002, the party won four byelections, raising its seat total to five, and jumped in the polls to 40 per cent.3 If an election had been held during this period, Mario Dumont would have been elected premier. But it wasn’t, and ADQ support dropped to 18.2 per cent when the election came in April 2003. The ADQ actually ended up losing a seat, with four MNAs elected.

It was at this time that Quebec’s political class first paid attention to the social and economic policies of the ADQ. They discovered a very conservative party with a right-wing agenda – one, some claimed, that wanted to remake Quebec society for the benefit of the rich. Hence few objected to PQ and Liberal parliamentarians refusing to give the ADQ any resources as a party (they were not required to since the legal threshold was 12 seats or 20 per cent of the vote).

Practically without resources, the ADQ became almost invisible, but Mario Dumont proved an astute politician. In the fall of 2006, right in time for the 2007 election, concerns about the integration of ethnic and religious minorities were gaining the attention of the public – but not the mainstream politicians. Dumont chose to speak out, questioning the politically correct doctrine of reasonable accommodation. Soon he was playing a large role in setting the terms of the election debate. And on March 26 the ADQ won 41 ridings, only seven fewer than the Liberals. It became the official opposition; the PQ was relegated to third place.

In both 2003 and 2007 the ADQ ran on an election platform, staking out quite clearly its position on key policy areas and issues. These provide a basis for posing the question of whether the ADQ was and is the far-right party it has been painted to be. We do so by examining its social and economic policies and comparing them to those of its opponents. We ask also to what extent the ADQ has changed, especially in the period leading up to the 2007 election when the possibility of actually forming an government emerged. It was at that point that Mario Dumont offered his own definition of the ADQ, categorizing it as an “autonomist centre-right party.”4 The term autonomist refers to the constitutional position of the party, while use of the term centre-right reflected an effort by the party to define itself so as to avoid being defined by others, as happened in 2003. By affirming loud and clear that the ADQ is a centre-right party, Dumont sought to short-circuit attempts to portray it as extremist.

The question is whether it was successful, and whether it deserved to be. The 2007 party platform retains the general principles of 2003, emphasizing free choice, individual responsibility, autonomy and freedom, terms dear to the heart of business people and right-wing think tanks like the Economic Institute of Montreal and the Fraser Institute. For the ADQ, the government is not always the answer – though it is not always the problem either. Overall, while continuing to assert that the government plays too big a role, Dumont is now more cautious when it comes to specific cutbacks. The ADQ is not committed to massive cuts in public spending, or to privatization of important publicly owned companies like Hydro-Quebec. Like the Harper Conservatives, Dumont’s ADQ knows that a party intending to win has to move toward the centre. This is the main reason why its 2007 platform is more centre-oriented than its 2003 one.

Health care

The health care system is at the centre of political debate in Canada. With waiting lists still quite long and money still short, the Quebec system is no exception. In 2003, Jean Charest and his team promised to make health care their top priority. While they did increase funding, they didn’t manage to improve the overall quality of services, at least not in the public mind.5 Thus, when the 2007 campaign began, Quebec voters were more open than ever to major changes in the system, including private sector involvement.6 In its 2003 platform, the ADQ had promised to increase the role of the private sector, even if it meant violating the Canada Health Act. For example, it proposed to allow individuals to pay for some products used in clinics or certain administrative charges, such as the charge for opening a file.7 At the time, the ADQ failed to calm fears of private sector involvement, especially as the platform referred to patients as clients and promised to bring competition into the system. For its 2007 platform, the ADQ had modified its language and spoke of a “truly mixed system.”8

Its position nonetheless constitutes a significant transformation. An important factor was the Supreme Court of Canada’s Chaouilli decision in June 2005, which declared the prohibition of private insurance for services already covered by Quebec’s public health insurance agency unconstitutional. While the PQ immediately demanded that the Liberal government invoke the notwithstanding clause, the government asked for a delay in the application of this decision.

The ADQ seized on the judgement to move even further toward the privatization of health care. The ADQ now not only proposes to allow people to contract private insurance but is also committed to allowing doctors to work in the private sector once they have provided a minimum period of service in the public system. Thus, when it comes to health, the ADQ position differs considerably from that of the Liberals and the PQ, neither of whom accepts significant private sector involvement. The 2007 PQ program says only that “privatization is not the solution” (p. 17), while the Liberals would place any private sector involvement under tight controls. Concretely, the Charest government put this plank into effect in response to the Chaouilli ruling when it agreed to allow the establishment of private clinics that could provide certain services which up to then had been covered exclusively by the public agency. In conclusion, on health care, the ADQ is clearly the most pro-market party. It’s in fact the only one to give an important role to the private sector and to speak openly of private insurance.

Daycare

In 2007, the ADQ changed its formula, so that instead of giving a voucher to everyone with a child of childcare age, it promised to maintain public subsidies to the daycare centres while giving parents $100 a week for every child not in daycare.

Quebec is a distinct society when it comes to childcare. In heavily subsiding public daycare so that parents pay only $7 (previously $5) per child, Quebec differs from the other provinces, where daycare can cost as much as $40 a day. Implementation of this measure, which was introduced in 1998, has naturally proven very costly, with expenses, according to the Quebec budget, of $1.7 billion in 2007. For its part, the ADQ’s 2003 program called for maintaining the public network. However, rather than going to daycare centres, the public subsidy would go to parents in the form of vouchers so that they would be able to choose how to use it – including financing a parent to stay at home with their children, something the existing system discouraged. This is the logic that motivated the Harper government to bring in a payment to parents of $100 a month for every child under six. In 2007, the ADQ changed its formula, so that instead of giving a voucher to everyone with a child of childcare age, it promised to maintain public subsidies to the daycare centres while giving parents $100 a week for every child not in daycare. In reality, the outcome would not be significantly different – this proposal, like its predecessor, moves the system closer to price neutrality between public and private childcare – but the ADQ sensed that it was less likely to make parents with a child attending a daycare centre feel threatened.

Education

Primary and secondary schools are mainly public in Quebec, but there is a substantial private school sector at the secondary level, reflecting the past role of religious collèges classiques. These private schools are generously subsidized by the Quebec government, which allows them to keep tuition fees low (about $3,000 a year in 2007). In its 2003 platform (p. 43), the ADQ proposed to give every parent a voucher that could be used to pay tuition fees to attend any school, public or private, in a given area. Currently, while parents with the capacity to pay and academically qualified children can choose between the private and public networks, they have little choice over which public school their child can attend. The ADQ proposal sought to give parents more choice, as well as to introduce some competition into the public system. Such voucher systems are rare and exist only in few jurisdictions (such as Sweden and New Zealand), though under appropriate conditions they are certainly feasible. Whether they in fact improve the educational system is still an open question, and the Liberals and PQ showed no interest in the idea.

Whatever the reason, the 2007 ADQ platform no longer promised vouchers. Instead, the focus in education was on another area: the party promised to abolish school boards. This proposal gave concrete form to the commitment to radically decentralize school management in the 2003 platform. Giving more powers to school principals was presented as a means of introducing some competition; the ADQ also claimed it would reduce administrative costs by as much as $150 million. Neither the Liberal nor the PQ program spoke of abolishing school boards. And Dumont was hard pressed by his opponents to justify this radical idea and to prove that the cost savings of school boards would not simply become higher expenses for municipalities, which would be responsible for maintenance and school buses.

Another key education issue in the campaign was university tuition fees, which have remained unchanged in nominal terms as a result of a 1995 decision of the then PQ government. University students in Quebec on average pay less than $2,000 in fees per year – much less than other Canadian students – and community colleges (CEGEPs) charge no fees. In 2003, all three parties promised to keep tuition frozen, but in 2007 only the PQ continued to promise this. The ADQ platform promised an unspecified increased “contribution of students,” which Dumont stated would be accomplished by indexing fees to inflation – hardly a radical change. The Liberals were more specific, proposing to increase tuition fees by $50 every session for five years.

Environment

If the three main parties agreed on the Kyoto targets, they differed on how to reach them. Interestingly, the ADQ was the only one not to propose the establishment of a carbon trading exchange in Montreal. Such markets currently exist in Europe and in Chicago with varying levels of success. The ADQ approach is close to that of the federal Conservative government, which has shown no great interest in carbon exchanges, suggesting other means to reduce greenhouse gases. While the ADQ generally adopts positions closer to those advocated by mainstream economics, as we have seen, this is not the case when it comes to the environment.

This is somewhat surprising since Quebec is a leading Canadian province in reducing greenhouse gases. With its hydroelectricity and implementation of the Charest government’s “green plan,” the province is likely to reach its Kyoto targets and would thus benefit from carbon trading among Canadian provinces and American states. Moreover, if this market were located in Montreal, it could allow the Montreal exchange to regain some ground lost to the Toronto Stock Exchange. But even though it endorses the Kyoto targets, the ADQ is very critical of the “green plan,” which it opposes because it introduces a new tax (on petroleum products) to raise the required funds, noting that the burden will just be shifted to consumers. Instead it calls for improved energy efficiency and expansion of Quebec’s hydroelectric export capacity. In sum, the ADQ’s program on environmental issues is a little bit thin compared to the other parties. Interestingly, the late September 2007 meeting of the ADQ general council, while adopting more pro-environment policies, created controversy when, in his closing speech, Mario Dumont stated that the environment could not trump the economy.9

Public finance

The debt owed by the province of Quebec is estimated at $118 billion for 2006, or 43 per cent of provincial GDP. Depending on accounting procedures used, this is the first or second highest ratio of debt to GDP of any province in Canada. Annual budgets are officially balanced, but the Auditor General of Quebec reports annually that this is due to creative accounting, and the province is in fact running a deficit year after year, something the ADQ makes a special effort to bring to public attention. Indeed, it stressed debt reduction early on, well before 2003, and has criticized the Liberal government for its hypocrisy in claiming zero deficit while in reality letting the debt grow.

The ADQ was also probably the first party to be publicly concerned with the demographic decline resulting from the aging of the population, which means an added public debt burden for today’s young. The ADQ did not buy into the Fonds des Générations set up by the Liberal government with the support of the PQ in 2006,10 supposedly to address the problem. The Fonds is managed by the Caisse de Dépôts et Placements, the Quebec government’s portfolio manager, and funded with water-related taxes and profits. Its assets should grow to more than $30 billion by 2025. In its 2007 platform, the ADQ explicitly commits itself to abolishing the fund and to spending the money on directly reducing debt.

The platform goes on to promise to use the windfall resulting from extraordinary economic growth (defined as more than 3.5 per cent in nominal terms) as follows: one third for reducing personal taxes, one third toward the debt and the last third for improving infrastructures. But unlike the Liberals, nowhere does the ADQ promise any tax reduction under current circumstances, citing the province’s tough financial situation. And Mario Dumont and his team commit themselves to putting into practice the accounting rules of the Auditor General (though, interestingly enough, the financial perspectives set out in their program are cast in the accounting rules of the Minister of Finance). On taxes, then, the ADQ is conservative but moderate: the heavily criticized proposal to introduce a flat tax, as in Alberta, was withdrawn right before the 2003 campaign. Of the three main parties in Quebec, it remains the one most concerned with the debt issue, though the Liberals and PQ do admit that there is a problem. The PQ has come around to supporting the ADQ demand for stricter accounting rules in determining deficits in public finances.

Another issue related to public finances concerns the fees and rates of publicly provided services, such as electricity, childcare and drivers’ licences, which were frozen over a number of years. The Charest government allowed the Régie de l’Énergie to raise electricity rates and itself hiked daycare fees from $5 to $7. The ADQ tries to have it both ways. It criticizes the PQ for having frozen the rates, while opposing the Liberals for the way they raised them. The ADQ says it is committed to establishing a clear pricing policy for publicly provided, subsidized services. This amounts to repoliticizing many pricing decisions, and could lead to further problems. For example, since 1978 car registration and drivers’ permit fees, as well as personal liability coverage auto insurance premiums, have been set by an autonomous agency (SAAQ) whose job it is to link the fees to actual costs, and thus prevent government from bringing in political considerations. This conforms to the economic principle of individuals paying for what they use. The ADQ in its values unambiguously endorses this principle, yet violates this very principle by heavily criticizing the Liberal government for allowing electricity rates to increase.

A centre-right party

Overall, the ADQ is distinct from the other Quebec parties on economic and social issues. But we have also seen an evolution between 2003 and 2007 which suggests that the ADQ has moved toward its own self-definition: a centre-right party. Its platform in 2003 was clearly more liberal (in the European sense – that is, conservative) than in 2007. Yet the changes appear to reflect an effort to be more electorally acceptable rather than any change in the ADQ’s underlying ideology. On Quebec’s left-right political spectrum, the ADQ is clearly the major party to the right of centre and, on most issues, the one closest to the federal Conservatives.

Its main effort has been to reformulate conservative proposals to make them more attractive. This has meant moving away from broad commitments to cut spending toward proposals based on conservative ideas that could attract support – even if they were costly. A good example is the $100 credit to every parent with a child not attending daycare. Though costly, this proposal seeks to maximize freedom of choice by users of public services and arrive at appropriate pricing for such services – principles dear to the heart of mainstream economists. In a sense the ADQ is reminiscent of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, promising an unthreatening “rupture” with the old statist society.

No one can doubt Sarkozy’s profound influence on the very terms of public discussion in France. Is anything like this true of Dumont in Quebec? The ADQ was, after all, the real winner on March 26, even if it only became the official opposition facing a minority government. While it’s always hard to pinpoint what actually matters in a campaign, we can say without much doubt that the ADQ managed to define certain key issues. The first is the family: imitating Stephen Harper, the ADQ clearly emphasized the family’s role and importance. Second, perhaps its greatest accomplishment was to open to the door to private sector involvement in the health care system. Politicians can now speak more freely of the role of the private sector in providing health care, which was still taboo a few years ago. Third, the burden of the debt is now better recognized in Quebec, and this is clearly due to the ADQ’s emphasizing this issue starting long before 2003; this is no mean feat.

Not only that, but the ADQ affected the very style of the 2007 campaign. Taking a feather from Stephen Harper’s cap, it offered simple, understandable solutions. Mario Dumont came across as closer to the people, especially outside Montreal. One example of how the ADQ forced the other parties to adjust was provided by Jean Charest, whose first speech from the throne after the election borrowed a number of the ADQ’s simple popular ideas, for example the return to school report cards with numerical grades. It feels as if the ADQ has the momentum to win power next time. But this is politics, and things can change very quickly. Whatever happens, however, the ADQ will remain a player and the Quebec electorate, like Ontario’s, will have to get used to a three-way contest.

Notes

1 http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/dossiers/adq/02.html

2 Interestingly enough, the actual official name of the party is Action Démocratique du Québec – Équipe Mario Dumont.

3 http://legermarketing.com/fr/intprov.asp?
prov=QC&l=1

4 “We propose a strongly reformist approach on economic and fiscal issues, but also a pluralist and progressive point of view on social issues” (http://adq.qc.ca/fichiers/Carnet_OffrePolitique.pdf).

5 http://www.tresor.gouv.qc.ca/fr/publications/budget/07-08/graphiques.pdf, p. 1; http://www.
legermarketing.com/documents/spclm/070703
fr.pdf

6 http://www.legermarketing.com/documents/spclm/070703fr.pdf, p. 4.

7 ADQ 2003 program, p. 35.

8 This and subsequent references and citations are drawn from the various chapters of the 2007 ADQ platform (Carnets).

9 http://www.radio-canada.ca/radio/maison
neuve/01102007/92633.shtml

10 http://www.budget.finances.gouv.qc.ca/budget/2006-2007/fonds_generations.asp

 

Bryan Breguet is an MSc student, and François Vaillancourt is a professor, in the Département de Sciences Économiques, Université de Montréal.