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Seeing Quebec – and not only 
Quebec – with clear eyes

In mid-October, a group of prominent Quebecers led by 2 iStock_000000353026Medium.1 The language is stark, even moving. The survival of Quebec as a vibrant distinct society in North America is threatened, the manifesto’s authors argue, by an aging population, mounting Asian competition in the global market and growing public debt. Drawing a parallel with the grande noirceur, the “great darkness” of the Duplessis period, they see contemporary Quebec society as blocked: “Social discourse in Québec today is dominated by pressure groups of all kinds, including the big unions, which have monopolized the label ‘progressive’ to better resist any changes imposed by the new order.”, The primary victims of inaction, they insist, will be the next generation. When asked in his TV and radio appearances why he was taking this initiative, Bouchard answered that he could not look his sons in the face if did not try to do something.

The text acknowledges the accomplishments of the Quiet Revolution, which enabled Quebecers to realize education levels equal to those elsewhere in Canada, and to close much of the gap in per capita incomes. But this catch-up is now blocked, argue the signatories, by the very groups born of the Quiet Revolution. Quebec is again falling behind. Quebecers must embrace efficiency-enhancing changes to public policy, such as higher university fees combined with income-contingent loans the better to fund postsecondary education, reforms that shift taxation from income to consumption, and an end to cheap electricity so as to raise public revenue and lower the provincial debt.

The group cannot complain that their manifesto has been ignored. It has elicited an outpouring of opinion, pro and con. The manifesto appeared in the midst of the Parti Québécois’s leadership contest, and all candidates distanced themselves from it. In reality, many Péquistes share the underlying analysis – aside from Bouchard, a main author is Joseph Facal, who had been a key cabinet member under outgoing leader Bernard Landry and policy adviser to one of the leading candidates to succeed him, Pauline Marois. But the document states explicity that becoming sovereign will not change Quebec’s situation fundamentally – something no aspiring PQ leader can admit to.

The document comes at the onset of a confrontation between the Quebec government and its public-sector employees. Not surprisingly, union leaders have rejected it. The response of Réjean Parent, head of the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (composed largely of teachers and others employed in education) is typical:

Signatories of the manifesto accuse unions as systematically opposing change. They even accuse them of being builders of a “republic of the status quo.” … Unions in Quebec have always been and always will be agents of change, but of changes wanted by and good for all Quebecers … This manifesto is an unexpected gift from Heaven for Jean Charest (Inroads’ translation).

Supporters of this view, including spokespersons for the newly formed coalition of left-wing parties in Quebec, clearly see the manifesto as an attack on the “acquis sociaux,” the social gains of the Quiet Revolution. They dismiss the signatories as “néoconservateurs” or “néolibéraux” – in French the two words have a similar meaning and negative connotation. But such labelling is too easy. Among the manifesto’s signatories is Pierre Fortin, perhaps the most influential left-wing voice among Canadian academic economists of his generation. Hence, rather than a neoconservative critique, the manifesto is better seen as a throwing down of the gauntlet in Quebec’s version of similar debates on the European left.

If we step away from the immediacy of Quebec political jousting and take a broad look across the Atlantic, we can see that from the end of World War II until some time in the 1980s, the European left unapologetically championed expansion of the welfare state. Those on the left disagreed among themselves about the ultimate socialist goal, but they agreed that the welfare state could render society both more just and more productive. Universal state-managed health care would equalize access to health care and reduce the inefficiencies of market-based care; expansion of postsecondary education at low or no fees would equalize income opportunities and enhance productivity.

By the 1980s, many of these arguments were fraying. With variations across countries, European governments faced chronic deficits and rising debt/GDP ratios despite successive increases in tax rates. Electorates were clearly forming voting blocs based on preservation of their acquis sociaux and rendering reallocation of budgets within the public sector ever more complex. In the large continental countries of France, Germany and Italy, reforms languished. As a result, the unemployment rate in these countries has stubbornly remained at 10 per cent for a generation. Among the “socially excluded” minorities such as North African immigrants to France, the rate has been two to three times higher.

Only in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Britain have parties of the left grappled adequately with problems of the mature welfare state and adopted domestic variants on Bouchard’s manifesto. These parties have been rewarded with continued electoral success. Elsewhere in Europe, the left has generally responded as Réjean Parent did to Bouchard, and has remained faithful to the set of ideas that underlie the original post–World War II construction of the welfare state. As former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard recently stated, the French left cannot restrain itself from “always demanding more than is possible … scornfully dismissing the limits set by the capacity to produce and to distribute – that which we, by convention, call the economy.”2

Where parties of the left have not grappled with the problems of a mature welfare state, the problems have not gone away: the debate over what to do about them has become the prerogative of the right. Prior to the rise of “New Labour” in Britain, Thatcherites had a clear run. In France, whatever one may think of their answers, politicians on the right – and especially presidential aspirant Nicolas Sarkozy – have been alone in asking the fundamental questions about reforming the welfare state. (For more context about France, see Henry Milner’s article elsewhere in this issue.)

Meanwhile, back in Quebec, despite the record levels of unpopularity of the Charest government, there has been no outpouring of support for the public-sector unions which, compared to earlier such confrontations, have been careful to tone down the rhetoric. Confronted with almost weekly reports of plants closing, unable to compete with Chinese producers, le Québec profond is evidently more receptive to the message of Bouchard and his fellow signatories than is suggested on the letters pages of Le Devoir.

For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec has added substance to what would otherwise have been a fall in which the main political events were the lacklustre PQ leadership campaign – dominated by debates over André Boisclair’s suitability for high office given his revelation of cocaine use – and fulminations over the sponsorship scandal. In the short run, the manifesto changes little. But given its timing, its eloquence and the stature of its authors, its contentions are not likely to fade away.

— Henry Milner and John Richards

 

Notes

1 Available online in both languages at 
www.pourunquebeclucide.com

2 Cited in a review of Si la gauche savait: Entretiens avec Georges-Marc Benamou de Michel Rocard (Paris: Laffont, 2005) by Christian Rioux, in Le Devoir, October 14, 2005 (Inroads’ translation).

 



About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.




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