Why voters with young families supported the ADQ, and how to get them back
The 2007 Quebec election saw francophone voters reject the Liberal Party, a large part of the electorate refuse to give the Parti Québécois a new mandate, and support for the Action Démocratique du Québec grow dramatically, both in popular vote and in seats won. While many political observers termed the ADQ surge a protest vote, there is more to it. There has been a steady growth in support for the ADQ since the 1994 election. To make sense of the election outcome we need to understand the social forces underlying this trend.
This is not to underestimate the role of ADQ leader Mario Dumont. While erratic during the previous few years, he proved remarkably skilful at taking advantage of voters’ dissatisfaction and frustration as the election approached. He practically monopolized the debate on reasonable accommodation, and managed, at the right moment, to come up with several measures that attracted the media and resonated in the public imagination. But it would be a mistake to believe that this reflected only a shifting mood among voters. I suggest that it is a sign of a deeper change, and that what we are seeing could be more a generational leap than a change of mood.
Consider these facts “on the ground.” The PQ remained very strong in ridings located in the resource-extracting regions of Quebec. These regions are experiencing a very large demographic imbalance as a result of two related phenomena: the falling birth rate and the emigration of youth toward metropolitan areas. The remaining residents in these regions are older on average and less affected by the precarious employment situation in the resource sector. And many have nest eggs to shelter them against debt. The ADQ made only marginal gains in the resource regions, though the Liberals suffered heavy losses as a result of a very severe and poorly managed forest industry crisis and what the public perceived as an ineffective regional policy.
In contrast, PQ support fell dramatically in the “450” belt surrounding Montreal (named for its telephone area code), characterized in large part by newly built suburban housing for young families. This group, while not poor comparatively speaking, feels squeezed and may experience the stress that comes from insecurity more than any other social group. The ADQ’s message – reduce the size of government and put more money back into the pockets of taxpayers, particularly young families – found its readiest audience in the 450 area this time around, just as it had earlier in the Quebec City region.1
I was personally struck by the situation of these young suburban families during the 2003 election campaign. In my door-to-door visits, I frequently encountered young adults, new parents, living in brand new homes and, apparently, spending rather freely. Typically both parents worked, each had their own car – and they complained, often bitterly, of lack of both time and money. They were exasperated with politicians and politics and frustrated by the taxes they had to pay while working so hard to make ends meet. The perception that Quebecers are the most-taxed population in North America and never get their money’s worth was spelled out regularly, in no uncertain terms.
This perception was fostered by the Liberals, who used it to win in 2003 and paid the price in 2007. If anything, the perception was stronger during the 2007 campaign, and this time it often resulted in a determination to vote for a party which had never governed and which promised to stop beating around the bush and take firm action to reduce the size of government – to do what the Liberals had promised but failed to do. The ADQ, following the example of the federal Conservatives, identified some concrete problems and offered simple solutions which kept the government in the background2: giving money directly to families rather than to service providers; eliminating local governing structures; completely freezing the debt, including for infrastructure investments (in effect a return to the 1950s); and privatizating the health system.
All of this was served up by a leader who looked like he knew where he was going: no government, but much government authority! When the problems are complex and opaque, firm and clear “leadership” appeals to an electorate for which politics – as these voters themselves told us – far from being an important concern, is an irritant, best thought about as little as possible.
The pressures on young families
But the question remains: why would young families be receptive to the notion of shrinking government and its programs more than other groups? The answer, in my view, lies in a combination of their feelings of political alienation and the gap between their incomes and their consumer needs.
The 25–45 generation is part of a cohort which, unlike its predecessor, is suffering the full consequences of economic globalization. They work independently much more often than did the previous generation; precarious employment has entered the picture, but without a comprehensive, diversified and easily accessible range of programs for upgrading their occupational skills. Two-parent families do better, since both parents are now on the job market, but often at the price of a quality of life subject to the grinding pressure of lack of time for themselves and their children. (Hence the popularity of parental leaves, a program initiated by the PQ and completed by the Liberals – but for which they got little credit.3)
Add to this that Quebecers of this generation have no experience of what Quebec was like before public policies that modernized its educational, economic and social institutions were implemented. Not having participated in these broad and sometimes dramatic reforms, they do not identify with the movements for social and political emancipation and the decisions taken to ensure security and social justice, decisions from which they see little benefit for themselves.
So members of this generation will more easily accept these programs’ reputation as expensive and (unjustly) as inefficient, and look favourably on schemes to reduce or remove them. The Quebec health system, a flagship reform of the Quiet Revolution that had already been weakened by Liberal attacks during the previous PQ mandate, became a scapegoat that the ADQ could readily exploit.4
The target of this populist revolt is not only the government, but also the rich and powerful. And with good reason: young families can justifiably see themselves as the group that missed out on the benefits of economic growth.5
This phenomenon falls within a more general context of accentuation of income disparities, as the richest seize an ever-increasing portion of the collective wealth. Thus, in a recent paper, Université de Montréal sociologist Paul Bernard cites a study showing that, between 1975 and 2000, before-tax income in Canada grew by 13 per cent for Canadians overall, but by 28 per cent for the best-paid tenth of the population, by 75 per cent for the best-paid hundredth and by 319 per cent for the best-paid thousandth.6 In fact, according to Bernard, while “the after-tax disposable income represented an inequality (Gini) coefficient of 0.283 in 1979 and 0.277 in 1989, it was 0.315 in 2004 (a Gini value of zero would correspond to a perfectly egalitarian society, and a value of one to the total monopolization of all income by a single individual).”
Feeling themselves victims of unfair income distribution can affect young parents at the beginning of their life as workers and professionals, reinforcing their feeling of dispossession, alienation and cynicism with respect to a state apparently unable to set the situation right. As their relative purchasing power goes down, the pressure to consume only increases – and it is possible to buy everything on credit, including a first home without any need for a down payment. We are in a consumer society, whether we like it or not, and young families are certainly one of the favourite targets of marketers.
Data on the indebtedness of young families per se are practically nonexistent, but there is clear evidence of an increase in household debt, with consumer debt per Quebec household having doubled in the past ten years, from $3,646 to $7,259, and the portion of household disposable income devoted to debt having risen from 22 to 32 per cent, an increase of 47 per cent.7 During this period, per capita personal saving plummeted from $1,330 to $299, and the rate of personal saving dropped by 84 per cent, from 8 to 1.3 per cent. According to Statistics Canada, the highest ratio of debt to net worth among Quebecers is for those 25 to 35 years of age: 39 per cent. Those 35 to 44 are at 24 per cent, while the ratio for seniors is only 2 per cent. Among the various types of households, couples with children come off worst, with a ratio of debt to net worth of 20 per cent, compared to 13 per cent for childless couples. An additional factor is that it is consumer debt – on credit cards, credit margins or instalment purchase plans – that is mounting fastest (5.1 per cent between 1993 and 2003 compared to 2.85 per cent for mortgage debt).8
Some analysts dismiss such worries, suggesting that Quebec households are in fact better off since real estate values jumped in the last 10 years, from an average of $15,372 to $61,332 per household, while interest went down. Yet they admit that Quebec households are therefore more vulnerable to a sudden rise in mortgage interest rates or to falling stock markets. One worrying sign of this vulnerability lies in the fact that personal bankruptcy is declining everywhere in Canada except Quebec, where it rose by 6 per cent between 2005 and 2006.9 Moreover, it is a good bet that these lucrative real estate investments are seldom in the hands of young households.
What may we conclude from these observations? The key development is a turning inward toward self and family in an economic environment in which, especially among young households, the increasing uncertainty of income and its insufficiency when set against perceived consumer needs and the wealth of the prosperous adds up to disenchantment with the state. In a recent study carried out in France, Philippe Guibert and Alain Mergier offer an apt description of this new context. We no longer expect the state to protect the nation, they argue, but rather to protect personal lives. For people constantly pressured to lead a “normal” life, as measured against the consumption of those around them, in a world threatened by deterioration of the quality of life, concern is no longer with a collective destiny but only with the destiny of each individual. As the protection demanded is typically immediate and simple in the context of a complex environment which people feel powerless to control, it fits in with a political message that disavows government as an (inefficient) redistributive actor, proposing instead the “reestablishment of persons as actors in their own lives.”
The easiest political fit is with the contemporary conservative discourse – as we have seen. Yet it need not disqualify parties such as the Parti Québécois whose political position is based on principles of social justice, redistribution, equity, prosperity and the sovereignty of governance. It does, however, call for serious thought about the means of getting there, and acknowledgement that the road will be a hard one. In my view these are the key elements that must be incorporated into this rethinking:
First, education. There is an ambitious but necessary project to be undertaken on two fronts: (1) bringing the level of occupational skills up to needed standards, to make sure that workers in a job market in constant flux can adapt and advance; and (2) starting earlier and being more consistent in emphasizing the values of citizenship and the involvement of citizens as “actors in their own lives” in the community. With such an education, the old slogan of “every man for himself” can become “everyone for others.” By meeting these two goals, we can make the idea that Paul Bernard has trenchantly expressed a reality: “For wealth to be created, it first has to be redistributed.” Bernard, like many other pragmatic progressives, has argued for “laying the groundwork for all citizens so that they can participate in the labour market in large numbers and under the best possible conditions … A high participation rate contributes to increased productivity in the economy and makes it possible for the government to levy taxes in an intelligent manner so that it can maintain its services.”10
Second, economic justice. The widening of income disparities in favour of a small minority at the expense of young households stands in the way of building a sense of community and collective destiny. If we cannot find ways to reduce these disparities, we will be condemned to an ever-increasing weakening of the social democratic electoral base.
Third, consumption and saving. It is imperative that we deal seriously with this issue. If we do not soon develop a fiscal policy that fosters saving and reasonable consumption by families, it will be too late. The thread that unites us will have been torn. Continued growing debt can result in young families taking it for granted that their contribution to the collective pool of taxes is nothing but an obstacle to self-realization unrelated to their quality of life. Released from the immediate pressures of debt and consumption, individuals can be real actors in their own civic life. Efforts to lighten the burden of debt will make it possible to make more enlightened choices over the long term. And the state can help them out in this.
Fourth, time. The presence of two parents on the job market constitutes a daily challenge to managing the time devoted to the family and its surroundings. The availability of childcare services and parental leaves has begun to be important here, but much remains to be done to help these young families gain a feeling of mastery over the daily schedule in combining the roles of worker and parent. In part, this is what “reestablishment of persons as actors in their own lives” is about.
Finally, the sovereignty of the Quebec people in the governance of their own lives. Here too all people must be restored as actors in their own civic lives. As I wrote in June 2007,
The Quebec independence movement is a movement for the liberation of a people. And one can not liberate a people in spite of itself and at a preset time. It is from the people that the signal must come that it is time to move on to something else. It is from the people that must come the forceful conviction that it has sufficient self-esteem, that it has enough confidence in its means and that it recognizes the urgency of protecting its culture, its language and its institutions by taking full possession of the mastery of the necessary political and economic instruments. It is also from the people itself that must come the enthusiasm for a collective project that takes it out of dependency and confronts it with its responsibilities. A political party can and must nourish that conviction, that enthusiasm, that desire, that taste, that courage of the people, but it cannot decide the date and the hour when the people will make these signs manifest.11
The last election proved these words right.