Sweden, September 14

Sweden’s election resulted in a narrow victory for the “Red-Green coalition” led by the Social Democrats over the centre-right Alliance led by the Moderate Party (conservatives). However, this victory may prove short-lived, in part because the populist Sweden Democrats (SD) hold the balance of power, having come in third with just under 13 per cent.


Red-Green promised more funding for schools and welfare and accused the Alliance, which had introduced tax cuts and social welfare reforms, of making Sweden more unequal. Sweden’s economy has done well, but that failed to convince a sufficient number of voters to give the Alliance a third term. Many felt that Sweden could afford to spend more on welfare, health care and schools, and better tackle youth unemployment. But many other voters focused on Sweden’s extremely generous refugee policy, with close to 90,000 refugees accepted this year in a country of 9 million. Only SD opposed this policy, arguing that money should instead be spent on social welfare and humanitarian aid. SD’s effective leader, Jimmie Åkesson, was able to attract votes from conservative young people in the cities, above and beyond the party’s core of supporters in smaller communities in the north and south who feel marginalized in the postmodern world.

SD’s success could push outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party further to the right. Exit polls showed that nearly 30 per cent of SD voters supported the Moderates in 2010, something Reinfeldt’s successor will have to take into consideration when deciding whether to continue the policy of refusing to deal with SD. This choice will take place in the context of a parliament in which the Social Democrats and Greens together have only 38 per cent of the seats. To cement the support of the Left party for the coalition, Red-Green will have to adopt policies such as reducing state support for privately owned schools, hospitals and old-age care facilities. This would alienate the small middle-of-the-road parties in the centre-right Alliance, the Liberals and Centre, whose cooperation Social Democratic Leader Stefan Löfven may need. The Alliance threatened to present an alternative joint budget this autumn, which could defeat the government if SD supports it – but this is unlikely since it will include large increases in spending on asylum seekers. Nevertheless, for the first time in 30 years, an elected Swedish government might not survive the full four-year term.

How Swedes elect a government

Sweden has a parliamentary system like Canada, with fixed four-year terms, with the government formed and led by the leader of the largest party in parliament. Because it has a proportional electoral system, these are almost always coalition governments. Each party has a clear program emphasizing specific priorities, some of which are incorporated formally or informally into the joint program of the two potential ruling coalitions.

In Sweden, voters simultaneously select their local, regional and national representatives, from regional-district lists drawn up by each party. In the city of Stockholm, for example, there are six such regional districts electing between 10 and 20 representatives to the local and regional councils and the parliament. If in one of these a party wins, say, 15 per cent of the vote, and 20 seats are to be allocated, the top three names on its list are declared elected. Most of the lists alternate female and male candidates, assuring something close to parity in the composition of the assemblies.


Voters receive list/ballots (see photo) for each level from each of the parties in the mail and at the polling stations – and often from party campaigners outside the polling stations. They place the list/ballot of the chosen party for each of the three levels in the ballot box. They can affect which of their party’s candidates will be elected by placing a mark in the box next to one candidate they wish to move to the top of the list. They can also vote early, anywhere in the country and at consulates and embassies, with the option of changing their minds on election day.

At the national level, a party needs to win 4 per cent of the overall vote to gain entry to the parliament. The left-wing Feminist Initiative, with 3.1 per cent of the vote, was thus excluded. To ensure overall proportionality, a few extra seats are allocated in certain districts to parties whose total of combined seats from the district lists is below what they are entitled to on the basis of the overall total of votes received.

11_Sweden election results

Each of the eight parties represented in the Swedish parliament has its own program, in addition to the agreements that form the basis of the mandate sought by each potential coalition. There was no mistaking the different approaches of the two potential coalitions when it came to tax cuts and privatization. Because party programs are consistent at municipal, district and national levels, choices are clearer and more transparent than in Canada. Most impressive to me was the clear identification of each party with certain concrete issues that give expression to its underlying political views, as articulated in the numerous televised leader debates and in campaign literature. For example, the Christian Democrats, a small party within the Alliance, stressed making it possible for one parent (i.e. the mother) to take the entire 14 months of parental leave rather than, as now, two of the months being available only to the second parent (i.e. the father). This was not retained as part of the Alliance program, since the Liberals – who presented themselves as feminist but, unlike the Feminist Initiative, not socialist – opposed it.


On the other side, the Left party sought to abolish the provision brought in by the Alliance allowing tax deductions for money spent on domestic help, something to which the Social Democrats would not commit themselves, given the popularity of the program.

The ubiquitous posters stress the main themes of party programs, rather than the personalities of party leaders and candidates. Interested citizens can and do drop by the parties’ wooden huts (see photo) in the central square of Stockholm (as in every city and town), where parties distribute literature and their representatives take turns speaking, sometimes debating, from a temporary stage. These “election villages” are reminiscent of a unique Swedish political happening known as Almedalen (see box). On page 86, you will find the results of a recent poll, which dramatically illustrates the relative knowledgability of the Swedish electorate.


How much of this is applicable to Canada? We have already moved toward fixed election dates. On the other hand, our federal system is not compatible with aligning election dates and electoral boundaries at the three levels. Nevertheless, aligning provincial and local elections is certainly a possibility. This, combined with proportional representation, would go a long way toward promoting a more informed and engaged electorate – though I would prefer the German/Scottish version in which the outcome is proportional but there are individual districts as well as regional lists. Canadians have debated these matters before but, as a new and even less electorally engaged generation takes its place, we will surely have to debate them again.


Scotland, September 18

11_figure 1It was not until 5 a.m. that we had sufficient numbers of votes counted to be sure of the outcome. It turned out that the predictions based on the many surveys that had been conducted were accurate. As figure 1 (compiled by Claire Durand) reveals, the two sides came closer as the date of decision came nearer, largely because the Yes, as noted by most observers, ran an especially effective campaign. Nevertheless, the gap between the No (top line) and the Yes (bottom line) levelled off at roughly 10 per cent (In the chart, you can see the three “rogue” polls in early September which panicked the No side). Since no exit polls were conducted, our knowledge of just who voted Yes or No and why is limited. One thing we do know is that the group consistently against independence were Scots aged over 60 – a combination, we can assume, of fear of losing benefits and greater identification with things British. And we know that this is the group that most dependably turns out to vote.

During the last two weeks there were a couple of surveys that showed the Yes within the margin of error, and this got the attention of the media and the authorities in Westminster. The front pages printed a joint statement by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, which contained a solemn promise to devolve greater powers to the Scottish Assembly. At the same time, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a proud Scot, emerged as key spokesperson for the No, a far more convincing public speaker than his successor (see photo).

11_Henry_Scotland_8Scotland also drew much international attention. The Canadian media were very much present, as were a fair number of interested Quebec politicians and political activists. One dimension of the comparison with Quebec lies in the content of the campaign. The No played on economic fears, especially loss of the British pound, while the Yes stressed social justice: that the welfare state was safer in an independent Scotland which elected few Conservatives than in a U.K. prone to be ruled by Tories.

The media in Scotland were especially keen to compare and contrast events there with the Quebec referendum of 1995, especially when it looked as if there might be a similar very close outcome. While the publicity surrounding the promise to devolve power and the emergence of Gordon Brown may have had some effect, I suspect that it was marginal and the Yes effectively peaked at 45 per cent. Thus the more apt comparison is 1980, when the newly elected Parti Québécois found itself committed to holding a referendum that it could not win.

11_Henry_Scotland_5When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, support for the Scottish National Party was around 20 per cent, never having exceeded 30 per cent. The electoral system chosen was based on the German model. Though not quite as proportional, it was believed to be proportional enough to ensure that the SNP could never win a majority and impose a referendum. In 2007, the SNP, having won one seat more than Labour (each at about 32 per cent), formed a minority government. There was no real talk of independence for the next four years. In 2011, for a number of reasons having much less to do with independence than with the unpopularity of policies in Westminster, the SNP won 45 per cent of the vote and, unexpectedly, a bare majority of seats. Despite fewer than one third of Scots favouring independence at the time, the SNP government announced that it planned to hold a referendum as promised. A meeting with the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was planned.

To the surprise of many observers, the meeting produced an agreement to hold a referendum on independence. Given the numbers at the time, Cameron must have felt that he had nothing to fear by recognizing Scottish self-determination in this way. There was no mention of a third option, more devolution without independence, which SNP leader Alex Salmond had apparently anticipated.

Without disparaging Salmond’s competence or the effectiveness of SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon as a public speaker, the movement in Scotland in 2014 cannot be compared to that in Quebec in 1995. By 1995, a clear majority of the boomer generation among francophones favoured Quebec sovereignty, with a large number ready and able to mobilize publicly when the occasion presented itself. Their presence was unmistakable on Quebec’s streets in the weeks before the 1995 referendum.

Admittedly I was in Scotland for only ten days, but I couldn’t see anything comparable. In part this reflects differences in political culture when it comes to electoral campaigns, but there is more to it. Although I was not lacking in contacts on both sides and in the local media, I could find very few public manifestations on either side. Indeed, on the high streets of Edinburgh in mid-September, it was easier to find activities organized by secessionist movements from elsewhere. And the polling places I visited on voting day were rather quiet. By Scottish election standards, a turnout of 86 per cent was indeed high, but nothing like the over 93 per cent turnout in Quebec in 1995.

Will the loss in 2014 be followed, as in Quebec, by another such confrontation 15 years later, when the generation that voted No will have largely been replaced? We cannot rule out the possibility. A great deal will depend on what happens in the interval: whether the promised devolution to the Scottish Parliament in fact takes place. We would do well to remember that if the Meech Lake Accord had been ratified, and if Lucien Bouchard – who almost won the 1995 referendum for the Yes – had stayed in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as a result, the second Quebec referendum probably would not have taken place.

Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.
Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013.
205 pages.

Tom Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 2014.
248 pages.

Michael Ignatieff (PhD history, Harvard), and Tom Flanagan (PhD political science, Duke) are intellectuals who entered the Canadian political arena, paid the price, and lived to tell the tale – in the form of these two books. Writing books is what intellectuals do, and they know what they are getting into, but as evidenced by these books they can be unprepared for what awaits them in – or after leaving – the political arena. As a PhD who also dabbled in (Quebec) politics, these books have a particular resonance for me.

Clearly Flanagan’s and Ignatieff’s experiences are not comparable. Tom Flanagan was apparently quite satisfied with the job he had done when in 2005, after five years, he left the Stephen Harper team, having served as chief of staff among other top positions. (He returned briefly to work in the party’s war room during the 2005–06 campaign.) He explains the prevailing attitude at the time: “When the Liberals seemed to be in power forever, Conservatives concluded that part of their secret of success was ruthlessness … We concluded that we would have to beat them at their own game, and we did. Harper led the way.”

He was nevertheless unprepared, seven years later, for the reactions of his erstwhile colleagues to “the incident” (see box). Back at the University of Calgary, and despite acting at the time as unpaid adviser to Alberta’s Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith, Flanagan the public intellectual complains bitterly that, in effect, he was treated as a politician and not the academic he now was. It is from this standpoint that he uses his own experience to expand on what he sees as a wider phenomenon, one that threatens academic freedom. Much of his discussion of the threat to academic freedom is quite persuasive, though its academic tone makes it less than compelling reading for a wider public.

This cannot be said about Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes. Its author is a fine writer. Ignatieff too reflects on his experience, but this is not a dispassionate analysis. Rather, it is the expression of the still raw feelings of a modern Icarus who fell abruptly to earth after flying too close to the sun of political power. A public intellectual who had never been a politician, a Canadian who hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years, Ignatieff let himself be convinced that he could be prime minister. He attributes his failure to his being unprepared for the reality of contemporary Canadian politics, in part because it had moved to the right during his absence, but mainly because it had sunk, under Harper, to a level of nasty partisanship that he was unequipped to play.

In aspiring to the Liberal leadership, he took as his model Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the last successful intellectual in Canadian politics, for whom he had volunteered as a student before leaving for Britain and the United States. But one sometimes feels that his model Liberal leader is the flower-power Trudeau of 1968, not the cynical bait-and-switch politician on wage and price controls that Trudeau had become by the mid-1970s – let alone his successor Jean Chrétien.

The book is almost entirely about Ignatieff’s five-year political career: his arrival in 2006 (just as Tom Flanagan was leaving Ottawa), winning nomination and then election as a Toronto-area MP, being chosen party leader in 2008 and, finally, ignominious defeat (third place) in the 2011 election. It reads well: even though some passages are clearly warmed over political speeches, they fit this essentially political book. His final message is to aspiring (Liberal) political activists: his failure doesn’t mean the Conservatives cannot be successfully opposed. It takes someone tougher and, clearly, more experienced than he was. One wonders, if he were to write about Canada again, whether he would entertain the possibility that Tom Mulcair, rather the Justin Trudeau, might be such a person.

Flanagan’s Persona Non Grata begins by describing and analyzing “the incident” in depth from different angles, and then contemplates its wider implications. There is a long and quite academic chapter on the child pornography debate and another, citing Machiavelli and Aristotle, on how academic freedom is essential for postsecondary teaching. Ignatieff, for his part, explicitly draws on the stories of great intellectuals who were failed politicians: Machiavelli, Mill, Tocqueville and Weber.

The crucial aspect that Flanagan gets right concerns how political correctness in the public sphere, on the right as well as on the left, combined with the internet-based 24-hour news cycle threatens public discourse and even academic freedom. His dissection of the absence of genuine discussion about policy on child porn is telling.


When it comes to the underside of politics, for which he was clearly unprepared, Ignatieff is the more compelling. Perhaps he expected that Stephen Harper would treat him as the gentlemanly Robert Stanfield treated Pierre Trudeau. If so, he was seriously misguided. With Harper there was no question of fair play. From the day he arrived, Ignatieff was targeted by the Tories. “Just Visiting” was the label they stuck on him. The effect was, as he put it, that he never gained “standing,” and looking back, he admits that the enterprise was doomed from the outset.

The book describes the sad state of the Liberal Party, still weighed down by the sponsorship scandal, upon his arrival. It takes us from the end of the Martin era through the brief Dion period – with the backroom “men in black” all the while preparing Ignatieff for his role as saviour. There are a few highs among the lows. There is his winning the nomination in his Toronto riding, despite his gaffes due to his not understanding that the very words chosen on seemingly distant matters of foreign policy – his area of expertise – could easily offend a local ethnic group.


There is the short, happy period when he wins the leadership over his old and now former friend Bob Rae. But such interludes are short-lived. Ignatieff recounts his frustrations as Leader of the Opposition facing a Conservative minority determined to use any tactics that would undermine his credibility, and then the disastrous 2011 campaign, in which the Liberals suffered a terrible defeat, losing more than half their seats including his own. He reflects on this disaster with little self-pity, acknowledging that what he ended up doing was preaching to the converted. He mistook the reception from the crowds that turned out to hear him as an indication that his message was being heard. In fact, the people he needed to reach had stopped listening long before.

Ignatieff does a good job of explaining why partisanship is an indispensable element of democratic politics, and why ordinary citizens see it as poisonous. He concludes with a call for civility, complaining that his opponents treated him not as an adversary but as the enemy. While he does describe how partisanship made it necessary to compromise his principles, he ignores the wider question of whether an intellectual is suited for partisan politics in the first place.

Both Ignatieff and Flanagan are public intellectuals. This means, first, that they are trained academics who are willing to address issues of the day beyond the walls of the academy. But as intellectuals they assume a willingness – indeed an insistence – on uncovering and disseminating the truth however unpopular it might be. In other words it means being ready, able and willing to be “politically incorrect.” I am not here criticizing Ignatieff or Flanagan the politician, since politicians – as politicians – are not obliged to risk politically incorrect stands, though I would add that this is what makes intellectuals turned politicians like Ignatieff – or his predecessor Dion – less credible, and less effective, when uttering the required partisan pronouncements.

But Ignatieff is no longer a politician. Like Flanagan, he has returned to being an intellectual, and his book must ultimately be judged on this basis. Both had taken “politically incorrect” stances in their previous writings. In Persona non Grata Flanagan continues to take the critical intellectual route. But not Ignatieff. The problem is not so much his writing as a Liberal. Taking a partisan stand is not in itself incompatible with being an intellectual. It is the blind spot in his mea culpa that reveals him for the (failed) politician that he is.

Ignatieff the intellectual had learned that as a politician he had to censor himself for fear of offending various groups. And he continues to do this in Fire and Ashes when writing about the largest group of all: the Canadian voters, of whom we get a remarkably rosy portrait. Even though they were taken in by the dirty tricks of the Harperites, they are presented as invariably open, fair-minded and caring deeply about political issues. There is no hint of the electorate’s limited political knowledge or interest, and no suggestion that the process of appealing for their support was anything but uplifting.

In reality, intellectuals are uncomfortable with the oversimplification, the banality, of door-to-door campaigning. I can understand Ignatieff wanting to cast his meetings with voters and constituents as an antidote to the poison of parliamentary and party infighting, away from the constant pressure from the media. I can also understand his not wishing to encourage cynicism toward politics among his readers. But it’s hard not to blush at his serial romanticization of an electorate of which only 61 per cent even bothered to turn out to vote.

Flanagan, the political scientist, is clearly writing as an intellectual, having been ostracized, apparently only temporarily, from the public part of the role. In a sense he goes too far in that direction. The book delves deeply, indeed philosophically, into the various arguments surrounding relevant policy issues, especially child pornography, but does not devote sufficient attention to the political game itself. The political class is condemned or, in a few cases, commended for how it treated him during those difficult days. But insufficient time is spent dissecting their actions on the basis of his insider’s political knowledge and experience, beyond his admission in passing that he was himself insensitive to much of this when he was in his political role.

The contrast is stark. If Ignatieff had not really embarked on the transition back from politician to intellectual when writing Fire and Ashes, Flanagan faces the opposite problem in Persona Non Grata. Flanagan starts from the assumption that since he was back as a full-fledged intellectual, everyone else should have treated him as such. He does not ask whether the earlier Flanagan, the political animal, would have done the same if confronted with a similar situation. Since he justifies the tactics of the Harperites as beating the Chrétien Liberals at their own game, one can imagine that he would have condomed such treatment on the basis of political expediency. Though we can sympathize with his bitterness at the way he was treated by the political class, we would be more sympathetic if he had questioned his own role in establishing a climate among the Harper Conservatives in which adversaries are enemies and all is fair.

Like Ignatieff, Flanagan is highly critical of the media. It was in reaction to media reports of his taken-out-of-context statement about child pornography as a matter of taste that his erstwhile political colleagues acted. Faced with the immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle and social networks, which leave little room for fact-checking, they did not treat him as an academic. The issue was respect for academic freedom. But his reaction is also personal: he is especially hurt by his condemnation by Danielle Smith, refusing to accept the political necessity of her disassociating her party from him at that moment.

There is also a personal element in Flanagan’s lumping together a series of quite dissimilar incidents as reflecting the same tendency. While there is a good case for treating academic intellectuals differently from politicians, in his last chapter Flanagan extends his argument to Quebec politicians criticizing two news items. One was a Maclean’s cover story characterizing Quebec as the most corrupt province in Canada. The other was a 2006 Globe and Mail column that hypothesized that the murders of the 14 women at the École Polytechnique and the shootings at Dawson College and Concordia University were expressions of “alienation” from those not in the “pure laine” Quebec culture. I suspect that it is his own distaste for Quebec nationalism that leads Flanagan to undermine his own case by comparing respect for academic freedom with politicians taking issue with media reports. Surely he must have learned during his years as an insider that it is in the nature of politicians to criticize unflattering media portraits of their constituents – however accurate they may be.

Both these books are well worth reading, but both have their strong and weak points. There is still room for a more comprehensive analysis of what happens when intellectuals get involved in politics in Canada. Perhaps Stéphane Dion will one day take up the challenge.

The Parti Québécois lost Quebec’s election on April 7 – and it deserved to. A year and a half into its term, having passed a law setting a four-year fixed-term electoral cycle (see box), the minority PQ government dissolved the National Assembly. Facing an untested new Liberal leader and buoyed by polls in its favour, the party convinced itself that a majority was in sight.

As a minority government it proved competent, in part because it could not get the more extreme parts of its program, on further English-language restrictions and on the undiluted Charter of Values, through the National Assembly. In calling the election, however, the PQ mistakenly interpreted its popularity as a moderate minority government as an endorsement for moving forward on these policies and, just possibly, for putting a referendum on sovereignty back on the agenda. Trying to win a mandate as a majority government that would act on these matters simply played into the hands of the Liberals, whose new leader, Philippe Couillard, proved able to take advantage of the opportunity handed to him.

The moment that it all came crashing down was when the PQ’s high-profile recruit, union-busting media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, made explicit with raised fist why he was at Pauline Marois’s side. And it was hardly to support the moderately left-wing policies of her government: he was running to make Quebec an independent country.

The plummeting polls soon made clear what should have been apparent. While many Quebecers were sympathetic to the principles underlying the Charter and to the goal of sovereignty in the abstract, far fewer were ready to move toward implementation, given the divisions and – as Couillard and Coalition Action Québec leader François Legault kept reminding them – distraction from the real economic challenges facing Quebec that this would entail.

How could Marois and her advisers have been caught unawares? How could such apparently sophisticated people have been so wrong? Part of the answer is age. At the back of her mind, she could not but feel that a majority government at this time might be the last chance for her generation, the one that built the PQ, to realize its projet de société.

The results proved otherwise. To their credit, some of Marois’s peers were willing to face up to the implications of what happened on April 7. For example, in its report the next day, Le Devoir quoted Louise Beaudoin, a grande dame of the independence movement (see box) and Gérard Bouchard, one of its gurus, to the effect that the election was a “turning point” and that the movement had reached a “dead end.”

The most hard-headed analysis from within the cabinet came from 55-year-old Jean-François Lisée, one of the architects of the electoral strategy and a leading candidate to succeed Marois (and a contributor to Inroads on several occasions). In his much-read blog, and in an interview with La Presse, he made no attempt to sugar-coat the numbers. Only one in four voted for the PQ, compared to one in three in 2012 when the PQ squeaked in as a minority. The polls showed that the Liberals won by rejecting the referendum and prioritizing the economy, jobs and health care.

To have a chance of winning the next election in four years, he concluded, the PQ would have to promise that there would be no referendum – “the elephant in the room” – during its term in office. Otherwise it could expect to languish in the opposition for 20 years. Should he seek the leadership, we can expect to see Lisée stake out this moderate ground, combined with a more explicit left-of-centre stance. He would face opposition from the party’s “pur et dur” wing (whose standard-bearer could well be Péladeau). He could also face Bernard Drainville, who was responsible for the Charter as minister. Lisée took his distance from Drainville in his interview, expressing his support for a grandfather clause in the Charter so that no one would lose their job.

Other assessments were even more pessimistic, and these often stressed the generational nature of the defeat (see box). This was no repeat of early fall 2012 when the party was able to mobilize some youth support to oppose the Liberals’ tuition increase. Both of the leaders of the 2012 student movement who ran as PQ candidates in 2014, Léo Bureau-Blouin and Martine Desjardins, were defeated. A Léger poll in Le Journal de Montreal in late March showed PQ support among those over 55 to be 13 percentage points higher than among 18- to 35-year-olds. What kind of movement for change depends on a generation departing from the scene?

For good or bad, the generations that will determine Quebec’s future do not include Marois (or Jacques Parizeau, Bernard Landry or Gilles Duceppe, none of whom were cited in the media post-mortems). Will the new generations’ aspirations revolve around a vision of Quebec that includes political independence? It seems unlikely. It is not that they identify with Canada and its political boundaries, but rather that national borders per se have little meaning in the cyberworld. In this world it is possible, indeed natural, to mobilize rapidly around a single issue, but far less so to engage in the steady organizational effort required to build a successful political movement.

A main theme of this issue is immigration. We feature two articles that shed light on diametrically opposed approaches to immigration, one by Elin Naurin and Patrik Öhberg from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, the other by Herbert Grubel based on a report he wrote for the Fraser Institute.

The contrast is stark. Without much overstatement we can say that, according to Naurin and Öhberg’s description of the principles underlying Swedish policy, the primary if not sole criterion is the welfare of the immigrants. For Grubel, however, the primary if not sole concern should be a net benefit for the people in the receiving country, in this case Canada. He calls for significant changes in Canadian policy so as to meet this criterion. And, it is fair to say, under the current Conservative government Canadian immigration policy has been moving in this direction.

Traditionally Canadian policy has combined two goals. It has been assumed that those admitted as “economic immigrants” would in due course constitute a net benefit for Canada by increasing overall labour productivity and paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. While proportions fluctuate, in recent years this group constituted slightly over half of those arriving. “Family class” immigrants, most of whom are family members of economic immigrants, make up about a third of the total. “Refugees” make up about a tenth. The rationale for the family group is that economic immigrants are unlikely to come unless they can bring their immediate families with them. The rationale for the refugee group is, first and foremost, the welfare of those concerned.

Sweden, with a quarter of Canada’s population, now takes in almost twice as many refugees. Sweden’s door has opened wide in the last few years to welcome a large number of refugees from conflicts in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Central Asia. As a result, the great majority of immigrants to Sweden today are refugees and their families. As riots in Stockholm suburbs last summer showed, integrating the increasingly diverse newcomers is posing serious difficulties. Nevertheless, it remains politically incorrect to question the generosity of immigration policy.

In recent years, the politically incorrect terrain has been occupied by the Sweden Democrats, the populist party that wants to stop immigration. The Sweden Democrats are shunned by all other parties, from left to right. Naurin and Öhberg suggest that this leads to a disconnect. The question that should be answered is not asked: how can Sweden integrate an increasingly large number of immigrants, a group with major cultural differences from native Swedes and much lower average education levels? Even to pose this question would implicitly grant a certain legitimacy to the Sweden Democrats.

Grubel is not interested in refugees; he is content to leave their share of the total immigraton flow unchanged as long as there is a net benefit to Canada from all categories of immigrants combined. He attributes the increasing net cost of immigration to the Canadian economy to a decline in long-term productivity of those accepted as economic immigrants under the points system, and to overly lax regulations pertaining to their ability to sponsor parents and grandparents.

To ensure that there is a net benefit to Canada, he would go beyond current reforms that make it more difficult for asylum seekers’ parents and grandparents to obtain landed immigrant visas. He would exclude all parents and grandparents as permanent immigrants. His major proposal goes even further: he would scrap the points system. Instead, he favours nomination of immigrants by employers, subject to the constraint that they pay a salary at least equivalent to the average in the region. Admittedly, the points system has become subject to abuse, but employer nomination is a system that is also subject to gaming.

Given their size relative to population, Sweden and Canada are countries that can afford to be generous to people outside. Sweden provides the example of a country that has chosen one extreme – with long-term consequences still uncertain. Should Canada go to the other extreme? This is a debate that both countries need to pursue. In this and subsequent issues, Inroads will do its part.

“Courage, Hope and Dreams” sculpture, Hamilton, Ontario, by Paul Bolland

Nonmaterial redistribution is a key element in successful societies

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett,
The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.
London: Allen Lane, 2009.
330 pages.

Anyone concerned with equality and poverty has likely heard of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level. The first edition came out in 2009, with a second edition published at the end of 2010 by Penguin with the subtitle Why Equality is Better for Everyone. The authors have responded at length to criticisms of their analysis on the Equality Trust website and in the postscript to the second edition, and have made their graphs available online. As of September 2012, the book had sold more than 150,000 copies in English and was available in 23 foreign editions.

Despite efforts by conservative critics to discredit their data, on the whole their claims stand up. When it comes to physical and mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, mobility, trust, violence, teenage pregnancy and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries than in more equal ones. Figure 1 sums up their findings.

We should not be surprised by these findings since the more egalitarian countries regularly come out on top in various cross-national indicators. For example, the 2013 edition of the UN’s World Happiness Report ranks the more egalitarian countries at the top: among 156 countries, Denmark is first, Norway second, the Netherlands third, Sweden fifth, and Finland seventh as the best places to live in the world.1

8_Milner_figure_1In this sense the book makes an important contribution, drawing attention to the relationship between equality and well-being, bringing together a variety of useful facts and figures in one place. The authors have, by and large, effectively defended their claims, certainly well enough to satisfy readers favouring or at least open to greater equality. They have not, however, won over their critics. More significantly, there is little sign that they have won over policymakers in their own country, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere.

To convince those whose opinions count, correlations between outcomes must be accompanied by sufficiently persuasive explanations, explanations that take into account the effects of specific policy choices. The Spirit Level makes no real attempt to put forward such explanations, and this, I contend, is its intrinsic weakness.

Policy choices and outcomes

It is perhaps unfair to ask authors not trained in the social sciences to consider the work of social scientists. Yet it is their failure to consider what social sciences contribute that underlies both the book’s popularity and its negligible influence on policymakers. The statistical correlations at the aggregate level between equality and various positive indicators are partly explained by the simple fact that, when there are fewer poor people, there are fewer unhappy, unhealthy, uninformed, violent and abused people. Beyond that, Wilkinson and Pickett’s argument can be reduced to the broad assertion that greater inequality induces greater stress, which affects not only the poor but those afraid of being poor, or of being poorer than their neighbours.

Their explanations are usually insufficient; they conceal significant policy-related factors underlying the statistical correlations. For example, the authors explain why average working hours are lower in more equal societies by noting that the pressure to consume is greater in more unequal societies. Nothing about laws setting out maximum working hours, vacations, parental leave, sabbaticals and the like. To be able to include this dimension, one must have some familiarity with the relevant social science literature, which points us first toward conducive institutions, and then toward the cultural context of these institutions. In particular, it entails some knowledge of the societies with the lowest levels of inequality that drive the correlations: the Nordic countries and Japan.

In presenting their data, Wilkinson and Pickett stress a “really important implication … how a society becomes more unequal is less important than whether or not it actually does so.” Insisting that Japan, with its low public expenditure, does best on many of the well-being indicators and is highly egalitarian allows the authors to reject the critique that their book is just another defence of the Scandinavian model, which they associate with high taxes and transfers.


Japan doesn’t serve this purpose very well. Apart from the fact that its unique culture disqualifies it as a model that others can apply, by an alternate measure it turns out to be considerably less egalitarian than portrayed in figure 1. The ratio used in this figure is the ratio of the poorest to the richest 20 per cent. If instead we used the more common indicator of equality, the Gini coefficient (which Wilkinson and Pickett themselves use in their comparison of American states), Japan is among the less egalitarian countries (see figure 2). Worth noting also is that the World Happiness Report accords Japan a mediocre rank: 43rd, well below the U.K. (22nd) or the United States (17th).

Why the Nordics?

This leaves only the Nordics in the egalitarian/high social well-being corner, followed by a few northern European welfare states. If, for example, we remove the four Nordics from the chart linking women’s status to equality, no meaningful correlation remains. The same is true of most of the individual charts.

Consider gender equality, on which there is much to be found in the welfare state literature. Scandinavian culture is an explanatory factor, but a wide range of well-known policies are more significant: it cannot be simply that gender equality is a byproduct of more equal income distribution among households, as Wilkinson and Pickett imply. Or consider trust (as measured by the percentage saying most people can be trusted, as opposed to saying you can never be too careful). The authors present a lengthy argument seeking to link trust to equality; unfortunately their data show no trace of that relationship once the Nordics are removed from the chart.

A glance at the charts on the Equality Trust website shows that many of the positive correlations depend on the presence of the Nordics. Clearly, the path to interpreting the data passes in good part through the Scandinavian landscape, and through the policies that link material equality with the various positive social outcomes in these countries. On the basis of the literature, I identify the following policy choices at the core of the “Scandinavian model”:2

  • strong trade union and other popular representative organizations with structured input into relevant social and economic policy decisions;
  • a strong social democratic party linked to the above, committed to low disparities in income, wealth and power;
  • political institutions that are administratively decentralized and based on the principle of proportional representation, so that the strength of partisan representation reflects support in the population and necessitates some degree of structured cooperation in policymaking and administration at every level;
  • productive industries capable of maintaining good but internationally competitive salaries and working conditions (driving out low-paying jobs, thus resulting in wage solidarity – the Rehn-Meidner model), necessitating a high level of structured cooperation between employers and trade unions in the labour market and a system of taxation that effectively taxes everyone employed;
  • an education and training system that provides and upgrades the skills needed for employment in such rapidly changing industries;
  • social and labour market policies based on the principle of universal services in health, pensions, unemployment insurance, child care – along with education and training, to complement retraining and mobility;
  • an emphasis on the “nonmaterial” side of redistribution, via adult education, subsidies for study circles, support for public service media, newspaper subsidies, popular libraries.

It is of little use to policymakers elsewhere to point to the Nordics’ achievements in reducing inequality without providing insight as to how they got there. Some of these features are present outside Scandinavia, and a few have diminished in importance among the Nordics – notably the second, as the social democratic parties have lost their quasi-hegemonic position. But the overall system has proven resilient.

My own contribution to this understanding is an elaboration of the last point: civic literacy based on nonmaterial redistribution.3 Indeed, this is the real spirit level, the second side of the redistributive coin.

Nonmaterial redistribution

The Nordic countries score higher in civic literacy (the capacity of citizens to make sense of the political world and thus choose effectively among alternatives) than English-speaking and other European countries, and this correlates with relatively high levels of political participation.4 High-civic-literacy countries achieve informed political participation notably among those who elsewhere tend to be excluded from the democratic political process, thus bringing their needs and interests to the attention of policymakers.

High civic literacy is the result of policies that attain “nonmaterial redistribution.” They reduce disparities in not only material but also intellectual resources – via adult education, subsidies for study circles, support for public service media, popular libraries and the like – and do so in the context of conducive political institutions. This in turn reduces economic inequality: bringing those at the lower rungs of society to higher levels of knowledge augments their economic position directly in the labour market, but also indirectly by enhancing their capacity to exercise influence over the selection of policies.


Figure 3 shows the relationship between the Gini measure of inequality and nonmaterial redistribution, measured by the ratio in average reading comprehension scores between those at the 90th and 10th percentile in the OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey. Previous work I have done shows how the relationship between material and nonmaterial redistribution is manifested in political knowledge.5 The countries with the lowest income inequality tend to be those where educational attainment least determines political knowledge. Countries with more developed welfare states tend to make greater efforts to disseminate information to those at the bottom. Conversely, in countries where those at the bottom are more politically informed, they are also more likely to effectively participate politically in support of appropriate redistributive policies.

The capacity of the Scandinavian social democratic welfare state to achieve relatively egalitarian outcomes depends on the capacity of “ordinary” citizens to better identify appropriate policies – and the actors to implement those policies. This takes place in the context of the consensual institutions outlined above: the “supply side” of civic literacy. In a complex, economically interdependent world, it is by no means self-evident just what the effects of particular choices will be. To make choices that reinforce the capacity to redistribute without undermining the capacity for the society to adapt to a changing technological and economic context requires appropriate information linking actors, policies, institutions and outcomes.

There are illustrations of this relationship in the data marshalled in The Spirit Level, for example with regard to mobility, a key indicator often used to justify material inequality in the United States. Wilkinson and Pickett show that the American Dream of high mobility is now just a dream. Yet they are puzzled by their finding that, though mobility is higher in the more egalitarian societies than in the United States, Scandinavians are more realistic about the – relatively weak – obstacles to social mobility in their society than Americans. The puzzle is resolved once we bring in the knowledge dimension: those in a high-civic-literacy society tend to be more perceptive about the existence of inequality. The same logic applies to their finding that young people in the more equal societies have more realistic employment aspirations.

This civic literacy dimension is missing in the explanation offered in The Spirit Level for the various social outcomes of interest.6 “The biology of chronic stress,” Wilkinson and Pickett suggest, “is a plausible pathway which helps us to understand why unequal societies are almost always unhealthy societies.” It is through this pathway that an erosion of trust, increased illness and excessive consumption, among other things, develop in unequal societies. For them, the causal logic underlying these relationships is psychological:

The further up the social ladder you are, the easier it becomes to feel a sense of pride, dignity and self-confidence … Pride is the pleasure and shame, the pain through which we are all socialized … Greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status … If inequalities are bigger, so that some people seem to count for almost everything, and others for practically nothing, where each of us is placed becomes more important. Greater inequality is likely to be accompanied by increased status competition and increased status anxiety … Large inequalities produce all of the problems associated with social differences and the divisive class prejudices which go with them … also weakens community life, reduces trust, and increases violence.”

This simple logic is appealing but faulty. It assumes that the objective (statistical) level of inequality of a society corresponds to its subjective anxiety level as perceived by its inhabitants. The authors’ own findings suggest that this is false, especially given the lack of fit between perception and reality when it comes to obstacles to social mobility and economic realities generally in the United States. It also fails to explain nonpsychological indicators of social well-being such as infant mortality.

But even in areas where differences can plausibly be attributed to status anxiety arising from inequality, there is a policy dimension related to civic literacy that cannot be ignored. Consider two of Wilkinson and Pickett’s indicators that are less frequently discussed in the welfare state literature: obesity and teenage pregnancy. In the cross-national comparisons, the Nordic effect is especially strong when it comes to obesity. Eliminate Sweden, Norway and Denmark and the correlation between obesity and inequality almost disappears. Though not as dramatic, the same effect can be seen in relation to teenage pregnancy.

The authors’ interpretation of these data is that stress, especially stress experienced by the poor, leads to “comfort eating” and teenagers having babies. Missing is any mention of sex education – access to which varies among American states and which has the intuitively expected impact on teenage pregnancy7 – or the various Nordic sex education programs, which serve as a benchmark for the World Health Organization.8 Similarly lacking is any mention of national differences in programs to make nutritious food and information about it available in schools and beyond.9

Oversimplifying a complex question

In these and other policy areas, the nonmaterial aspect is a sine qua non if favourable outcomes are to be attained. While nonmaterial redistribution policies to reinforce civic literacy are not the entire Nordic story, omitting them distorts the overall picture. A similar argument could be made for the values underlying certain policy choices that combine redistribution with economic growth. As noted by The Economist in a recent article,

The World Values Survey, which has been monitoring values in over 100 countries since 1981, says that the Nordics are the world’s biggest believers in individual autonomy … Any piece of Nordic social legislation – particularly the family laws of recent years – can be justified in terms of individual autonomy. Universal free education allows students of all backgrounds to achieve their potential. Separate taxation of spouses puts wives on an equal footing with their husbands. Universal day care for children makes it possible for both parents to work full-time.10

Does The Spirit Level add anything significant to what we know? The answer depends on who “we” are. The book was able to gain public attention not because of the quality of its analysis, but, in a sense, because of the opposite: its oversimplification of an important but complex question. The book generated critical responses that kept attention on the issue of equality. Because of this, the book, on balance, has served a useful purpose. But the real work, developing policies that effectively reduce inequality under existing constraints, has yet to be done.


Continue reading “It’s not just income inequality that counts”

Philip Roth, The Plot against America. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 391 pages.
Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 293 pages.

There was a great flutter early this year over A Million Little Pieces, the largely faked autobiography by James Frey. Faking an autobiography amounts to taking people into your confidence only to lie in their faces. Frey’s downfall was assured when the truth came out and one of those faces belonged to Oprah Winfrey. While we cannot require an autobiographer to get everything right, we expect him or her not to intentionally get things wrong. Two important books came out in paper last year which, in quite different ways, raise intriguing questions about the use and misuse of autobiography. I did not especially like either, but each provides important, if sometimes unintended, insights into a major American cultural figure of our era.

19 roth from web

Philip Roth’s The Plot against America and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, though they could not be more different in conception, can both be described as non-autobiographical autobiographies. Dylan’s book has no discernible structure at all. It might be titled “snippets” rather than “chronicles,” jumping back and forth among events, reflections and characters with scant regard for making connections – even chronological ones – between them. Roth’s book, in contrast, is carefully structured, though even more unconventional as autobiography. He describes in detail his own life from the age of eight to ten in Newark, New Jersey – only not as it was but as it would have been had the regime in America been a pro-Nazi one with Charles Lindbergh instead of Franklin Roosevelt as president.

First Dylan. I was in my late teens during the early sixties, the period that Dylan tells about in his Chronicles; relatively few of the many scores of people who turn up mean anything to me. Yet Dylan seldom tells me enough to make them interesting: what matters is that they influenced him. Moreover, while he repeatedly tells us that these various passing characters changed his perceptions and often his sense of himself and his art, he never tells us how those influences found their way into the songs that were etched into a generation. Despite this, reading the book is in itself enjoyable since, as in his music, Dylan has a way with words. Here the words give us a nice feel for New York’s Village in the heady early days of the folk music scene.

Moreover, in what it says, and especially in what it does not say, Dylan’s non-autobiography is useful in helping us understand why he became a kind of tragic antihero. He still does not understand why he was regarded by so many as “the conscience of a generation.” He never claimed to be a protest singer – a term he has little regard for, he tells us. Naturally he was offended and enraged by the insistent demands of fans that he lead them to their political destiny. Had I not read this book and continued to know Dylan only by his songs, I would dismiss this claim as disingenuous, but now I am inclined to take him at his word. There is no ideology, no coherent framework of any kind in which he placed the various ideas and events that caught his fancy, whether in a book someone tells him to read or in a Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger song.

19 Dylan SCAN adj

In some unexplained, indeed unexamined, way these ideas and events spoke to him and he was able to find just the right combination of words and melody to give them expression. But that is as far as it goes. There is no effort to fit them together in something consistent and coherent. So it is perfectly natural for him to end a chapter about folksingers who influenced him with a passing reference to how impressed he was by Barry Goldwater.

In an extraordinary paragraph toward the end of the book Dylan writes, “In a few years time I’d write songs like ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’, ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall’ and some others like that.” These songs are among his greatest, and his most “political.” In this passage, he reflects on the simple fact that if he hadn’t gone to wait for his girlfriend who was working for a theatre group putting on a performance of Brecht-Weill songs and happened to hear the song “Pirate Jenny”, “it might not have dawned on me to write them, that songs like these could be written.” “Pirate Jenny” is a remarkably powerful, evocative song about class hatred, a maid looking forward to the death of the “gentlemen” she serves at the hands of the crew of the “black freighter” in the harbour. Yet if Dylan knew anything about the sociopolitical context of Brecht’s writing he never mentions it or takes it into consideration. The influence begins and ends with the evocation of a feeling through words and music.

In the end we are left with many impressions but little that is solid. If nothing else, Dylan’s subsequent fame constrained him from engaging in any gross distortions in this book, since any such distortions would no doubt have been caught by any number of critical reviewers. Still, he expresses no ethical qualms as he tells us how when first meeting certain people he reinvented his own background to project the image he sought as he developed his reputation on the New York scene.

And so, if there are no evident sins of commission, the very form of the book ensures that there will be many sins of omission. While Dylan admits to growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota – as opposed to some of the more exotic western and southern hometowns he claimed for himself in the early days – he tells us little of his family life. Indeed, one needs to read between the lines in these brief passages about life before his arrival in New York to discover that his family was Jewish. Revealing this aspect of himself would have undermined the American everyman image that he sought to convey.

Was being Jewish so much less important in Hibbing, Minnesota, after the war than it was in Newark, New Jersey? In Roth’s Newark, the efforts of family and community to conform to expectations of being good Jewish Americans are omnipresent. This is not a new theme for Roth, but he makes it absolutely central in The Plot against America by fabricating a set of circumstances which transform it from the maudlin to the exalted. By using this remarkable contrivance, being Jewish in America is turned into something potentially dramatic and noble, a setting for heroic acts in everyday life.

We certainly cannot criticize Roth for lack of ambition in tackling this enterprise. Unfortunately, however, as literature this non-autobiography is destined to fail. His portrayal of the world from a nine-year old boy’s perspective, though sometimes poignant, doesn’t always ring true since it is forced into an unconvincing political context.

Why did Roth write this idiosyncratic book in the twilight of his years? One popular interpretation is that it was political satire (a genre Roth had previously visited with Our Gang, his merciless attack on Nixon in 1971), a disguised critique of the fascist tendencies in the contemporary radical right in the United States. I do not share this interpretation: for one thing, Roth does not try very hard to make his political satire (sic) particularly effective.

No. It is the story of his family that is at the centre of this book, a story Roth clearly needed to tell. And the best parts are surely autobiographical – such as eight-year old Philip’s experiences taking the bus after school with ten-year old Earl Axman to find out where and how the Christian men who worked in Newark lived. But Roth has written about episodes from his youth in earlier books, except that the protagonists generally had different names: Portnoy, Kepesh, Zuckerman. Why, this time, is it the story of Philip Roth and his mother Bess and his father Herman?

He was, I am certain, trying to right while there was still time what he had come to perceive as a wrong to his parents – even if an unavoidable wrong for the writer he was. The political story is a device, a convenient framework to turn his parents into heroes, to turn upside down the portrait that had emerged from the fictionalized versions, the parents of the various protagonists of his 27 books. In these books, mother and father typically come across as anything but heroes. But now, in this context, everything changes. The prototypical Jewish housewife that was his mother is turned into the resourceful and brave defender of the family against the external threat; the beaten-down insurance salesman and provider that was his father is turned into the honest and fearless witness, scourge of the Lindbergh apologists in his own community.

In this sense the contrivance is brilliant. That which is stifling becomes uplifting; that which is fearful becomes courageous; that which is narrow becomes prescient. Unfortunately, for it to be believable we need to believe in the political setup. And for that to happen Roth would have had to invest so much more into the political story that it would have overshadowed the story of his family, something he obviously was not about to do. An unsatisfactory result was thus inevitable.

Had this book lived up to the promise of Roth’s recent novels, he would have been, in my view, an almost unavoidable choice – clearly superior to Harold Pinter – for the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize in literature when they came around to choosing an English-language writer last year. His 2000 book The Human Stain, though not his best, is still a work by a fine writer in good form. The Human Stain followed upon I Married a Communist, a powerful and at times searing portrait of the world of American left-wing intellectuals and media personalities of the 1940s. I Married a Communist followed upon American Pastoral, a masterpiece. In this book, among the finest of American novels, the narrator takes up the story a decade later. Nowhere is the generational conflict, the profound tension between the values, indeed the essence, of postwar Americans and their children’s generation better portrayed. Set against the story of the innocent 1950s New Jersey world of “Swede” Lebov and how it was shattered in the 1960s by the actions of his daughter, the contrived story of the Roth family of 1940s Newark in The Plot against America pales in comparison.

Philip Roth chose to write this doomed anti-autobiography late in his life for his own reasons, but literature was surely the loser. Roth at his best could have captured the post-9/11 rift in the United States better than anyone else. Instead of Rabbi Bengelsdorf, the rather pastily drawn Jew in the Lindberghs’ social circle and target of Herman Roth’s outrage, Roth could have created an antagonist of substance and power, a key player in neoconservative circles. But perhaps it is not too late; perhaps he will.

What about Bob Dylan? What if he had tried to write a real autobiography, to tell his own story, not as a series of selected and selective snippets but as a genuine effort at weaving these threads into something meaningful about his generation? From what we see of him in this book, it is very likely that he would have failed. It wouldn’t have sounded like the Dylan we all know, and hence it would have come out as inauthentic. Still, I would have liked to see him try.

There is something Shakespearean about the political and personal consequences of the revelations of the Charbonneau Commission. The names and pictures of officials, politicians and corporate executives have graced the front pages of the tabloids as they have been caught in the web of revelations of collusion to rig contracts with the city of Montreal. It is difficult to feel much sympathy for these people, but there is at least one important exception: former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay. His fall is the stuff of tragedy – for one public official, and even more important, for public life. As I write, Tremblay has just concluded his day in court, six months after he left office, telling his side of the story under the commissioners’ relentless cross-examination.

Tremblay appears to have won a certain measure of public sympathy, but it will not put back the pieces of his shattered career. Nothing will change the fact that between 2001 and 2012 he was at the top of an administration under which contracts went out to favoured construction and engineering companies. The simple thing is to look no further than the Mayor and his party, Union Montreal, which won a majority on City Council in 2001, 2005 and 2009. But if we do look further, and deeper, we find a much more complex story.


The city of Montreal was ruled for many years by one man, Jean Drapeau. In the 1970s a left-wing opposition to the Drapeau administration was formed. The Rassemblement des Citoyens de Montréal (RCM) or Montreal Citizens’ Movement won power in 1986, with labour lawyer Jean Doré elected mayor. No one could accuse this collection of trade unionists, community activists, left-wing Péquistes and progressive intellectuals, which won a second term in 1990, of being a tool of developers and speculators. Beyond ideological incompatibility with developer interests, elected RCM politicians’ decisions were circumscribed by an active grassroots membership that scrutinized their activities at every turn.

In 1994, the RCM lost to Pierre Bourque and his fledgling Vision Montreal. Bourque’s party was reminiscent of Drapeau’s Civic Party – little more than a vehicle for choosing and electing city councillors. A very different relationship between civil servants and elected politicians was instituted, as noted by Linda Guylai of the Montreal Gazette (see page 83). After Bourque and his party were reelected in 1998, electoral authorities uncovered many illegalities in Vision Montreal’s fundraising, but these revelations were largely ignored. Public and media attention at the time was focused on the Quebec government’s forced merger of the 28 formerly independent suburban municipalities on Montreal Island with the City of Montreal – a controversial act vociferously supported by Mayor Bourque. The suburban mayors opposed the merger, and they came together under the leadership of Mayor Georges Bossé of Verdun in an effort to defeat Bourque in the first “unicity” election slated for 2001.

The mayoral candidate they recruited was Gérald Tremblay, who had served in Premier Robert Bourassa’s cabinet in the early 1990s and had a reputation for integrity. Tremblay was that rare combination: a committed social reformer with an appreciation of business. The suburban mayors negotiated a coalition with the much weakened RCM, which like Tremblay had been ambivalent about the merger, supporting the principle but not its imposition from above. Although the typical suburban administration was a one-man show, the mayors accepted the RCM’s insistence on forming a new and, in principle at least, democratic party, the Montreal Island Citizens Union (UCIM), later Union Montreal. UCIM called for a decentralized structure for the new unicity; the RCM focused on borough councils in the inner city that would play a role a similar to that of the councils operating in the former suburban municipalities.

For the RCM, Tremblay’s links to the cooperative movement made him attractive despite his – rather superficial – Liberal Party affiliation, an affiliation he shared with a number of the former suburban mayors. Tremblay won the 2001 unicity election, and by sweeping the former suburban island municipalities, UCIM won a majority on the enlarged City Council with 43 of the 73 seats. This result was reflected in Tremblay’s choice of one of the suburban mayors, Frank Zampino of Saint-Léonard, as Chair of the Executive Committee, with Bossé as Vice-Chair. Zampino’s years of experience at the top rungs of the former metropolitan structure, the Montreal Urban Community, was something Tremblay was happy to fall back on when it came to detailed administrative matters. Indeed, rather than being the mayor’s man, as were previous Executive Committee chairs, Zampino’s suburban connections gave him a power base in the administration, on Council and in the executive.

Tremblay and Zampino had immediately to deal with integrating the 28 municipalities with Montreal, and four years later with the exit of half of them after the new Liberal government in Quebec instituted a referendum process for demerger.1 In his testimony before the commission, Tremblay stressed the problems this posed for the city, along with his pride in improving the lives of Montrealers with such measures as giving real powers to local city halls in the city’s boroughs and expanding social housing, public transit and libraries. The Union Montreal team was easily reelected in 2005, but Frank Zampino did not serve out the new term, resigning in 2008.

We now know that, when first elected in November 2001, Tremblay was told about “rumours” of corruption, rumours he could not confirm. As was corroborated by his successor Michael Applebaum, Tremblay only found out about the existence of a 2004 report into the extent of corruption when the report surfaced in 2012. The report investigated collusion between local construction companies and city officials in which entrepreneurs divided the contracts among themselves in a “closed market.” These practices had been in place under Bourque and apparently continued under the new administration.

The report estimated that the additional cost to the city was as high as 40 per cent on some contracts. Apparently, according to testimony before the commission in February 2013 by Serge Pourreaux, head of the city’s purchasing department from 2003 to 2006, it led to a proposal for a new optimization strategy for monitoring contracts which could result in savings of up to $50 million per year. While the Mayor was delighted, the proposal ended up being torpedoed by the public works department. In Pourreaux’s view this could not have happened without the complicity of Frank Zampino.

The 3 per cent

Construction contractor Lino Zambito testified that he paid a commission equivalent to 3 per cent of the value of sewerage rehabilitation contracts awarded by the city to a mafia-linked cartel he represented. A similar claim was made in testimony about engineering company contracts. Michel Lalonde of the firm Génius identified common practices going back to the Bourque administration in the 1990s. At the centre of a system of kickbacks that operated until 2009 were the city’s public works director, Robert Marcil, and former Union Montreal financing head Bernard Trépanier. Lalonde described how he and Trépanier reviewed lists of upcoming contracts and predetermined the winners. Marcil put their decisions into effect in creating the selection committees. Lalonde also testified that he collected money from the various participating engineering companies to give to Union Montreal, i.e. to Trépanier.

Lalonde’s assumption that Frank Zampino was involved with Trépanier when it came to distributing contracts to the consortiums of engineering firms was shared by François Perrault of the engineering firm Genivar. Trépanier, a veteran political fundraiser, had previously worked as chief fundraiser for his friend Frank Zampino in Saint-Léonard. Though he held the job of financial director of Union Montreal only between 2004 and 2006, he apparently continued to receive the money on behalf of the party afterwards. In his testimony, Trépanier denied the 3 per cent claim: it was only a matter of selling tables to fundraising events to those who had won contracts, though he admitted that the number of tables successful bidders were to buy was proportional to the size of the contract.

According to Tremblay, he himself fired Trépanier in 2006 immediately upon being told in confidence of a shakedown of a developer for a million dollars that Trépanier had attempted “in the name of the Mayor.” He insisted that bribes being paid to Trépanier did not find their way into the coffers of the party, and could not do so given the strict reporting regulations of the Director General of Elections. It was a related accusation that had brought him down in the fall of 2012, when former party organizer Martin Dumont testified that the Mayor was aware that his party was hiding expenditures and thus violating campaign spending limits in a byelection in Saint-Laurent borough in 2004. According to this testimony the Mayor got up from his seat and walked out of the room when the subject was raised, saying, “I don’t want to know about this.” In resigning, Tremblay denied this accusation vehemently, and asked to be heard by the commission.

On April 29, 2013, he finally got his chance, rebutting Dumont’s by now effectively discredited charges. When asked by the Commission why he resigned if the testimony was false, he answered: How could I serve the needs of Montreal, when public statements by the Marois government denied my legitimacy and authority?

One of the remaining mysteries facing the investigators is: Assuming the bribes were actually paid, where did the money go? No one has suggested that any of this money reached Tremblay personally, or indeed that he even knew about the payments to Trépanier or corrupt city officials. In his testimony, Tremblay revealed that he fired city manager Robert Abdallah when he received confidential evidence of Abdallah’s chumminess with Tony Accurso, whose firm had won a huge – apparently rigged – contract to put in water meters, and Rosaire Sauriol, vice-president of engineering contractor Dessau, the other member of the water meter consortium. In his own testimony, Sauriol told the commission that it was obvious that Frank Zampino was in charge. Indeed, he said, Zampino and Trépanier were often dismissive of Tremblay: “Mr. Tremblay was not aware of the projects – he didn’t follow what was going on.”2

The case of Frank Zampino, who in his testimony acknowledged close relationships with Trépanier and Sauriol, is quite different. Zampino resigned in 2008 amid rumours about a suspect land deal between the city and construction magnate Paolo Catania (which resulted in his arrest in May 2012 on fraud and conspiracy charges). It also came out after he resigned that Zampino had been one of those who travelled on the Touch, Tony Accurso’s luxury yacht. In his testimony Tremblay said that he was furious when he learned that, after leaving office, Zampino was to go to work for Dessau, which had been publicly accused of conspiring with Accurso to rig the water meter contract. Tremblay said he called the president of Dessau unsuccessfully urging him not to hire Zampino.

A look at all the testimony about Montreal before the commission makes it clear that the picture of a corrupt Tremblay-led Union Montreal is inaccurate. Instead, we have a pattern of collusion between contractors and corrupt officials going back at least to the Bourque administration and to some of the suburban municipalities that were absorbed into the city.

There is some irony in all of this. One of Tremblay’s consistent goals throughout his career was to bring businesspeople into public service, to channel economic energies into socially positive outcomes. What the commission has revealed is the other, dark side of this fusion. Rather than businesses being brought into the culture of public service, the culture of private business, in which it is normal to cultivate clients with meals, hockey tickets, even junkets, found its way into practices in Montreal and other Quebec cities, where the clients were public officials spending taxpayers’ money. The further irony is that it is because such perks held no personal appeal for Tremblay – those who know him will tell you that he is among the least susceptible of Quebec politicians to personal corruption – he was slow to see this other side of the relationship.

The media reaction to Tremblay’s day in court was that he acted too little, too late and too privately in rooting out corruption at city hall. But the fact is that the real problem is in the structure: from the role of the city manager on down, it is set up to insulate officials from interference by partisan politicians. It looks different in hindsight, but a mayor questioning a given contract handed down by a committee of city officials would be perceived not as fighting corruption but as seeking favours for his supporters. Tremblay and elected Union Montreal officials should have held those in charge of party finances under tighter scrutiny – but they were not themselves corrupt.

Can public officials be trusted?

In late April 2013 the city announced that Dessau would not be allowed to bid on contracts with the city for the next five years, and that the same would apply to any company that has admitted to or has been found guilty of collusion. This will make a difference, as will the fact that individuals who have admitted participating in such practices have lost their jobs. But what of the wider and deeper problem? Montreal Gazette urban affairs columnist Henry Aubin has consistently called for the dismantling of Montreal’s urban parties, applauding the independent status of the current interim mayor, Michael Applebaum. There is something to his logic that it is harder to effectively bribe a bunch of independents than a single party. But it is also hard to imagine any kind of coherent policy setting without likeminded politicians seeking office in a metropolitan city like Montreal getting together, so it could come down to a choice between recognized parties governed by regulations, and informal arrangements operating beneath the radar.

Part of the solution lies in transparency regulations that will improve media and public scrutiny over public spending. In Sweden, which often serves as a model in public policy discussions in Quebec, the general public and the mass media have access to all official records and documents of public authorities at all levels, including tax information of individuals; whistleblowers are protected by law; and there are ombudsmen in place to assist in the process. It is such mechanisms that account for the high levels of trust in public officials in Sweden.

Over time, instituting better transparency measures will help. But the immediate effect of what has been learned is to reinforce the message that government should be trusted as little as possible with honest citizens’ taxes. This is the where the real challenge lies. The story of Gerald Tremblay that has emerged is less an individual tragedy than a collective one, and the real victims are citizens who count on having competent and caring people in public service. The saddest legacy of the Charbonneau Commission could be that future Gérald Tremblays will eschew public life.

Gérald Tremblay grew up in Montreal. He has a law degree from the University of Ottawa and an MBA from Harvard, where he worked with Michael Porter, the popularizer of industrial clusters. After teaching at the University of Montreal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) from 1974 to 1977, he worked at the Fédération des Caisses d’Entraide Économique du Québec and the Société de Développement Industriel. He was elected as the Liberal MNA for Outremont in 1989 and immediately named Minister of Industry, Commerce and Science. Seven years later, with the Liberals out of office, he resigned and returned to the HEC and international consulting. His involvement in Montreal politics began when he was invited by Montreal City Manager Guy Coulombe to investigate popular participation in city decision-making; his 2000 report was ignored by the Bourque administration. At the urging of some active citizens, Tremblay joined forces with the former suburban mayors to oppose Bourque in the 2001 election for mayor of the newly merged city. After winning that election, he was reelected in 2005 and 2009, and resigned as mayor in early November 2012.

15_zampinoFrank Zampino began his career as a city councillor in the former city of Saint-Léonard on Montreal Island’s east end in 1986. He went on to become mayor of Saint-Léonard in 1990 and occupied important positions in the Montreal Urban Community. As a chartered accountant he was a natural candidate among the former suburban mayors for Montreal Executive Committee chair after the merger. He held the position until he announced his retirement from politics in May 2008, 17 months before the end of the Tremblay administration’s mandate, and took a job with a major contractor with the city, Dessau. A 2008 land deal, the Faubourg Contrecœur, between the city and construction magnate Paolo Catania resulted in his arrest along with eight others on fraud and conspiracy charges in May 2012. On March 22, 2013, he, Paolo Catania, Bernard Trépanier and several others appeared in Superior Court to answer charges of fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy in that case. They will return to court to face charges that they inflated the level of soil decontamination required to decrease the value of a large piece of land on which 1,800 homes were to be built from $19 million to $4.4 million.

Continue reading “Gérald Tremblay and the tragedy of public life in Montreal”

Overall, electoral participation has been declining in democratic countries for the last generation, as has party membership.1 Many factors have been blamed for this weakening of the foundation of representative democracy – including the lack of clear distinctions between the political choices offered to voters and the constraints on political discretion in an age of globalization.

My own work, beginning in the late 1990s, focused on the relationship between political participation and political knowledge. I found that the decline in one tended to be accompanied by a decline in the other (see figure 1). Moreover, countries with relatively high levels of political knowledge – I use the term civic literacy – tended to exhibit high levels of political participation. I argued that effective policies in education (including related institutions like libraries), the structuring of political institutions (including proportional voting systems as opposed to first-past-the-post) and – most important of all – the media2 could ensure a reasonably high level of political participation.

In recent years it has become clear that the decline has a significant generational component, something we observe in the mitigating role of the family. Hence, whether young voters live with their parents matters in explaining their participation.3 A case in point is the apparently positive effect of Austria’s reduction of the voting age to 16. This is confirmed by data from Norway, which experimented with voting at 16 in selected municipalities in its 2011 local elections and attained 58 per cent turnout among those 16 and 17, compared to 45 per cent among those 18 to 30.4 Other data have shown that civic education targeted at those lacking the requisite family background can also have a positive effect.5

But such measures, it would appear, only slow down the generational decline. While the causes of lower participation may be multiple, a universal factor is the radically changed media environment for those who reached maturity in the years of the Internet, relative to previous generations. This is not a matter of technological fixes like e-voting, whose effect so far is marginal, but of something more profound. For previous generations, policies such as state support for newspapers and public service radio and television boosted political participation in the high civic literacy countries. But we do not have parallel measures that could have a similar effect on the Internet generation at our disposal.6

Just what can we expect from this generation? This is the question I pose here, inspired by recent events in Quebec. My contention is that there is an incompatibility between “social media politics” as understood and experienced by the Internet generation and  representative democracy as we have known it. Furthermore, I reluctantly conclude that addressing this incompatibility may entail adopting some form of electronic direct democracy. These are contentious assertions that need, first, to be placed in historical context.

Changes over time

By the 1920s a consensus had emerged in Western societies: everyone should be educated and every adult should be able to vote. In exceptional cases, such as a few Swiss cantons, this took the form of direct democracy (for men only). But the norm became a combination of universal suffrage and party-based representative democracy: educated adult citizens had the ability and interest to distinguish among party programs and cast at least minimally informed votes.

The norm survived some glaring anomalies, most notably the totalitarian politics of left and right in the 1930s. At the time, movements that rejected representative democracy enjoyed a great deal of electoral success. The New Left of the 1960s contained elements opposed to electoral politics, but by the 1970s most radical movements sought not to overturn representative democracy but to make the system live up to its billings. It is tempting to see a resurrection of this ideal in the actions of the Internet generation. However, I contend that we are seeing something different: a passive rejection of representative democracy, comparable neither to the 1930s nor the 1960s and 1970s. The crucial difference is the media environments in which the respective movements emerged.

The mainstream of the youth movement that emerged in the 1960s sought student representation in the halls of academe and worker representation on corporate boards. While it took aim at establishment politicians, it did not reject party politics. In Canada, the best-organized generational movement was the “Waffle,” a faction within the NDP. In the United States, the movement embraced anti-establishment candidates in the Democratic Party: Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Robert Kennedy. In this it reflected the position that participatory democracy was a supplement to representative democracy, as articulated in Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Manifesto:

Two genuine parties, centered around issues and essential values, demanding allegiance to party principles shall supplant the current system of organized stalemate … What is desirable is sufficient party disagreement to dramatize major issues, yet sufficient party overlap to guarantee stable transitions from administration to administration …

Mechanisms of voluntary association must be created through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged. Political parties, even if realigned, would not provide adequate outlets for popular involvement. Institutions should be created that engage people … organized around single issues (medical care, transportation systems reform, etc.), concrete interest (labor and minority group organizations), multiple issues or general issues.

In the 1960s the reform politics of the United States was not exceptional; this was, as Daniel Bell famously labelled it, the time of “the end of ideology.” Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was not unlike reform programs in Canada and western Europe, and many of the demands of the youth movement found their way into policies, especially those that sought to end discrimination based on race and gender.

This is not to deny the subsequent emergence of an American exceptionalism. Prior to the 1970s, the U.S. South was a partner, albeit an uncomfortable one, with other elements of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition. In the 1970s the expanding South became Republican, which simultaneously weakened the Democrats and brought a more conservative Republican Party closer to electoral predominance. Bolstered by institutional perversities that gave large powers to legislators from small states and to well-financed narrow-focus lobbies, the American right achieved an ideological prominence far greater than that of its counterparts in most industrial countries. This dynamic, manifested most recently in the Tea Party movement, has been legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling which, as one commentator put it, made it impossible to stop the flow of “legally laundered cash in Washington” that “soils everything it touches.”7

One reaction to U.S. Tea Party politics has been Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which not inaccurately has cast the United States as a plutocracy of the 1 per cent, potentially rendering representative democracy meaningless. Given the institutional inertia, there may be some objective grounds for seeing representative democracy as unable to bring about change in the post–Citizens United USA. But OWS has failed to find much fertile ground outside the United States, where the 1 (or 5 or 10) per cent is nowhere near as institutionally entrenched. In representative democracies outside the United States, generally speaking, the system continues to perform. Despite public perception to the contrary, Elin Naurin shows in her recent study of 11 countries that parties that gain power in fact keep most of their election promises – roughly 60 per cent on average.9

The challenge we face

At least outside the United States, objective factors do not explain the democratic deficit reflected in declining voter turnout and party membership. Instead, we need to return to generational developments, specifically to the media environment of the Internet generation. We do not yet have data that test the contention directly, but we do have some indications that the Internet generation relates to the political world differently from generations that came before.

We are here talking about, roughly, people aged 18 to 30 or 35. If the thesis is correct, the most evident change in political participation between those who reached voting age in the 1990s and their elders should emerge in a comparison between their voting performance and that of the previous generation when it was that age. Spanish researcher Gema García Albacete has combined turnout data from seven major European countries. Not only did young people in 1974 vote more than young people in 2002, but the biggest change was among those 21 to 35.10 Similarly, Norwegian data show the biggest gap in turnout (15 per cent) to be between those 21 to 30 and those 30 to 40.11

The same pattern emerges in Canadian data. Table 1 shows turnout data from a paper published for Elections Canada.12 Compared to the generation reaching voting age before the 1990s, the Internet generation votes significantly less at age 18 and continues to vote less at age 35.

Staying with Canada, let us turn to events in Quebec. A good place to start is with the July 2012 manifesto of CLASSE, the largest of the groups behind the student protests. It covers the same ground as the Port Huron Manifesto, but the tone is fundamentally different. Representative democracy is explicitly dismissed in the name of something reminiscent of the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”:

Our vision is of a direct democracy called into action at every moment. It’s a vision of a We that is expressed in assemblies: at school, at work and in neighbourhoods. Our vision is of the population taking permanent control of politics, at the base, as the primary site of political legitimacy.

Their democracy – it only happens once every four years and too often only serves to change faces. Election after election, the decisions remain the same and serve the same interests; the soft whispers of the lobbies are preferred to the jangle of pots and pans.

How is it that an organization directly or indirectly representing more than 200,000 young Quebecers, few of whom are altermondialistes like the CLASSE leaders, can rhetorically dismiss electoral politics so readily? It is my contention that the student organizations, in their actions, gave voice to something implicit in social media politics, which in effect constitutes the rejection of representative democracy. It is true, as we shall see, that the events of summer 2012 contradicted CLASSE’s dismissal of electoral democracy. But this may prove to be ephemeral, and we may very well see in the events of 2012 an important moment in the Internet generation’s rejection of representative democracy. (Note that representative democracy is by no means limited to voting: it includes all the activities that directly or indirectly affect the choices of elected representatives. In addition to voting and party-related political activities, these include activities designed to mould public opinion on political issues.)

The implications of these developments are immense, and I shall return to them further on. Suffice it to say here that while a minority of politically uninformed and uninterested citizens has always been with us, we see now a growing part of our population ready to act in ways that undermine the decisions taken through the processes of representative democracy. Under most circumstances, this dismissal of representative democracy is expressed as a lack of interest and involvement in the political process. However, in acute situations, such as the fiscal crisis in Greece or protests against tuition fee increases in Quebec, a motivated minority, well aware of representative democracy’s sensitivity to protest, can rapidly mobilize large numbers around particular public-policy objectives. But use of social media to mobilize supporters means that the information needed to place the objectives and tactics within the framework of the workings of representative democracy is largely absent.

Consequently, we are forced to ask whether civic education and reformed electoral and related institutions will suffice to bring the Internet generation into effective participation in representative democracy. This may seem like a harsh verdict, but I have yet to see convincing evidence of the counterclaim that by constituting a classroom in democracy, the actions in the streets bring more young citizens into politics than would otherwise have been the case.

It goes without saying that societies lacking legitimate institutions of representative democracy are a different story. Social media politics can kindle large mobilizations against, and even bring down, authoritarian regimes. This is what the Arab Spring showed us.13 (The association of events in Quebec with the Arab spring through the popular play on words printemps érable, or “maple spring,” is thus illegitimate.) Even in this case, however, antidemocratic groups can be mobilized electronically, as manifested in the outbreak in September of sometimes violent protests in the Islamic world ostensibly over a YouTube excerpt of a film ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. Nor is there anything inherently political about street actions in representative democracies, as evidenced by the British lootings or the hockey riots in Vancouver.

In tiny Iceland, a quarter of the population was summoned to the streets of Reykjavik and by sheer numbers and perseverance forced the country’s leaders to stand up to British and Dutch banks. More typical, however, is Greece, where the anti-austerity protests have provided a milieu in which destructive forces have been able to operate.14

Perhaps the most interesting recent case is the 15M movement in Spain. On closer inspection, this movement (see Irene Martín’s article in this section) does not fit well into the social media politics mould. Despite its main original raison d’être being high youth unemployment, the Internet generation is only slightly overrepresented in 15M, and it is not especially dependent organizationally on social media. Its actions are structured around weekly neighbourhood assemblies (and regular regional and national meetings) at a fixed time and place, with actions limited to those based on consensus. The demands that emerged out of this process were aimed at improving rather than contesting representative democracy. Economic demands were constrained by the reality of Spain’s situation, and actions were limited to carefully selected cases, such as blocking a home repossession by a bank. Attempts to radicalize the movement have proved counterproductive.

The Spanish case appears to be, on balance, one that takes place within the framework of representative democracy. What of the Quebec students? Judy Rebick (in this section), among others, argues that the movement respected democracy since actions were adopted by votes at general assemblies in the colleges and universities “where every student participated in making all the important decisions.” And indeed, when the actions culminated in a relatively high-turnout election that brought to power a (minority) government supporting the students, the student leaders called it a victory for democracy. In my view, this misinterprets the overall significance of what took place. However, before asking the question of whether the long-term effect of the actions will be to reinforce or weaken democracy in Quebec, a wider discussion of how and why social media politics and representative democracy may be incompatible is required.

Representative democracy and social media politics

At its simplest, social media politics is the form of political participation of a generation whose link to the political world is primarily via the Internet, making it distinct from previous generations for whom the link was through print, radio and television. For those generations, political information was predominantly linear. It could be placed in a context of time and place, providing the individual with some basis for choosing among alternative policies. Thus, it fostered the understanding that politics consisted of linear process characterized by complex tradeoffs, particularly when it came to financing public programs.

Linearity was first challenged by the arrival of the multichannel television universe via cable and satellite transmission combined with the remote control device. Henceforth viewers, with minimal effort, could shift impulsively to a more stimulating image or avoid political information entirely. Research has shown that the result was a deeper political knowledge gap between those who followed politics and everyone else.15 The Internet accelerates and intensifies this process. Externally imposed order gives way entirely; now content is internally selected, ordered, even created. Power shifts from institutions to networks and from bordered territories to cyberspace, transcending geographical and hierarchical restrictions. Linearity is a thing of the past.

This is not to deny that that the institutions of representative democracy also make use of Internet-based forms of communication, through party websites, politicians’ blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts. But the literature shows that, overall, these remain marginal, and have not significantly affected representative politics. Representative politics still operates in a defined political space that allows for distinguishing among alternative policies that are time- and place-bound, making an informed choice, and applying that choice in an election.

For the typical participant, this entails identifying with a given political party as a kind of default position from which deviations in vote choice take place in response to altered circumstances. Hence, representative democracy presupposes that, under normal circumstances, citizens will vote and a motivated minority will make an effort to win the support of others. These others will seek to have their policy choices implemented by supporting a party or candidate or, indirectly, by attempting to mould public opinion via the media, petitions and various public actions.

The most significant distinct feature of social media politics lies in the way mobilization takes place. In representative democracy, information relevant to making choices and acting on them are transmitted and received through defined channels: political parties and other organizations seeking to attain their objectives via representative institutions, and reported on by the mass media.

Social media politics is based on an apparent shared interest on the basis of which the individual is potentially mobilized to action via specific information about a particular issue at a given moment, from signing an electronic petition to joining a demonstration blocking traffic. Collective action is immediate; there are no space- or time-based constraints as to the target and content. The primary, if not only, source of information is through social media from “friends.” These are not friends who know you as a real person, and might even disagree with you; rather they are strangers – anyone, anywhere, who presumably shares your interests.

Such information is thus inevitably incomplete and can simply be wrong. For example, an urban legend was spread among Quebec’s student protesters in spring 2012: someone, they were certain, had died in a protest and the government, police and media had conspired to hide it. Only when investigated by old-style journalists who found the person to be very much alive did the rumour die out.

Given that shared interest is what connects the individual to social media, they do not serve to provide information that could undermine that shared interest and therefore cannot serve as a forum for discussing and seeking to win others over to that position. Hence they serve poorly as a means of moulding public opinion and, thus, of affecting the decisions of representative institutions. Moreover, because politics based on social media communication is diffuse and lacks boundaries, mobilization will be around vaguely defined and changing goals, with no clear or consistent perspective on how to reach changing objectives.

In sum, political activities based on social media do not – cannot – set out the political-economic context in which the demands fit. To the growing extent that members of the Internet generation depend on social media, they lessen their capacity to operate effectively in representative democracy. Such e-mobilization, however large, will likely be unsuccessful, interpreted not as the failure to win over other citizens sufficiently but as proof of the immobility of the system. The result will be a return to passivity or – at the urging of the radical minority – intensified antisocial behaviour. This behaviour further alienates public opinion, ensuring that the demands do not find their way into public policy decisions, which is taken as proof that the real power lies in the hands of corporate interests that manipulate corrupt politicians and lying media. It is a classic vicious circle.

The Quebec student actions

Can representative democracy break this vicious circle by taking the issues raised in the street to the people in the form of an election? As I was writing, an election was taking place in Quebec, with the parties divided on the students’ demands. By this time, most students were returning to makeup classes while still denouncing the government. There were relatively limited signs of mobilization along representative democracy lines: building support for sympathetic parties and candidates.16 Indeed, for those representing the student associations that voted to go back to class in August, the word used was “truce.” No one I could find would say that they should accept the verdict of the people if a government opposed to their demands was democratically elected. This attitude toward the basic mechanisms of representative democracy is reminiscent of the earlier lack of concern that the various frequent disruptive actions of late spring would crystallize public opposition.

Without reliving the student protest and strike, I would suggest that the process of negotiations (sic) reflected the same nonlinear logic. At the beginning, it appeared a straightforward demand by the students to defend accessibility in response to the government’s efforts in raise Quebec’s very low tuition since its universities were relatively underfinanced and provincial debt relatively high. But an offer to make the system more accessible to students from low-income families through bursaries and loans was rejected.

The article by Pierre-Gerlier Forest in this section traces the evolution of the students’ refusal to compromise over the tuition freeze from a bargaining position to a sine qua non. Not only were pickets to keep the schools closed reinforced, even in defiance of court injunctions, but as the weather became mild and the days long, the action in the streets of Montreal intensified. No compromise could be envisaged from such a perspective, and for the dominant group within CLASSE in particular, it provided an expression of something more than a tuition freeze: a step toward a radically transformed society.17 Hence CLASSE refused to condemn the masked anarchists who used the street protests as cover to destroy property.

In classic vicious circle logic, the 130 consecutive nights of street actions were met by Bill 78, an effort by the government to restrain increasingly uncontrolled actions in the streets of Montreal and at college entrances. Bill 78 then itself became a prime focus of social media–mobilized protest, notably the banging of pots and pans (“casseroles”), drawing support for the students from organizations outside Quebec. On May 30 it was claimed that casserole marches took place in more than 70 communities across Canada and internationally. A second, larger, action on June 6 added opposition to the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill to solidarity with Quebec students and opposition to Bill 78. Moreover, since each march was independent and locally controlled, some added other issues of local importance. After telling of the actions, the press release by “leadnow” went on to state,

These pots and pans protests are an expression of frustration with a broken system, one where our governments spend billions on tax breaks for profitable corporations and high income earners, and then plead poverty as they slash our social programs … The issues in Quebec are the same ones faced around the world. Right now Quebec is leading the way, and the rapid, organic spread of these pots and pans protests … and all of their joy, love and community … is a sign the rest of the world is eager to follow their example.

From the point of view of a government (and, I would surmise, some of the students’ trade-union allies) operating within the linear political culture of representative democracy, the failure to compromise showed bad faith on the part of the student leaders. But this is to miss the submerged mass of the iceberg. These changing and at times contradictory, but immediate and intense, demands are the natural expression of social media politics. What was constant and consistent was the mobilization, and the only real tangible objective became to maintain and expand it as it gave visibility and “joy, love and community” to the movement.18

Overall, the dynamics of the Quebec spring proved to be very different from 15M, where activities and demands are decided by consensus. In Quebec, after a few weeks, the street actions and demands took on a logic of their own, creating a bandwagon on which the general assemblies – which operated on simple majority, could be called (or not called) by the leadership when they wished and, as emotions mounted, came to effectively exclude anyone opposed – found themselves riding. The real initiative lay in the nightly street actions in Montreal which no one could call off, with their route communicated only at the last minute via social media.

The 2012 Quebec election

It was assumed that dealing with the student demands would be the major issue of the election campaign. This did not happen. For the governing Liberals, the relatively peaceful – if ostensibly temporary – return to the classroom of the boycotting students at the Cegeps (colleges) in August meant that stressing the government’s having maintained law and order in the conflict would just bring back bittersweet memories. For her part, PQ leader Pauline Marois was happy not to have to defend her wearing of the (since removed) pro-student red square before the electorate. In the last week of the campaign, the university makeup sessions began. While there were disruptions at Montreal’s two large French-language universities, they did not affect the campaign.

The outcome was not unexpected. If the parties unsympathetic to the student demands, the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), translated their 58 per cent of the vote into forming a government, the student organizations were set to try to close down the system again. Instead the PQ, whose support of slightly under one third of voters never budged, squeaked through to form a minority government. Turnout was 74.6 per cent, better than the 70 and 71 per cent of 2003 and 2007 and much better than the 57 per cent of 2008 – though still lower than the 1994 turnout of 82 per cent and the 1998 turnout of 78 per cent. It was boosted by the tight three-party battle, very different from the predictability of the 2008 election, which followed the previous one by 18 months and was overshadowed by the Canadian and American elections. We do not know what the turnout was among young people, but if the 2008 pattern of a 20-percentage-point difference from overall turnout held, then young Quebecers’ 55 per cent was more than respectable in comparison with young people elsewhere in North America.

Yet there is no indication that, on balance, the youth vote reinforced the position of the PQ and the left-wing Québec Solidaire (whose two leaders participated in a pro-student march on August 22). If anything, the backlash against the students helps explain the poor PQ showing. Nevertheless, since Marois promised she would cancel the tuition hike by decree (unlike other controversial parts of her program, the opposition seemed disinclined to try to block this move), relative calm returned to Quebec’s educational institutions.

Will this victory bolster support for electoral democracy? CLASSE argues that victory came only because of militancy in the streets. In the wake of the election, it cautioned against trusting electoral outcomes, and promised to fight for free tuition. The other student leaders promised vigilance to ensure that the full freeze would be maintained and action against expected PQ efforts to tie tuition hikes to the cost of living. The lesson learned is not one of triumph by playing by the rules of electoral democracy. In this case a constellation of fortuitous circumstances came together – in particular an electoral system that gave power to the pro-student 40 per cent rather than the anti-student 60 per cent. But what paid off, ultimately, was a strategy based on disruptive mobilization. As has become even more evident in the days after the election, when economic circumstances force this government (or one that will take over within a year or two) to hike tuition, this year’s events will be evoked to call Quebec students to the streets once again.

Direct democracy in the Internet age

One other dimension of the Quebec events is relevant to this discussion. The Parti Québécois program promises binding referendums on issues at the demand of 15 per cent of voters. This became an important factor in the campaign when, in the TV debate, CAQ leader François Legault put Pauline Marois on the defensive, raising the threat of an unwanted, divisive referendum on sovereignty. Marois managed to get that proposal mooted, but the wider idea of bringing certain issues to the people deserves a real hearing. If there is substance to the incompatibility between representative and social media politics, we need to consider such innovations – even if they call into question certain key principles of representative democracy. One possibility is raised in the accompanying article by Vaughan Lyon: constituency parliaments, which could be seen as corresponding to the goal expressed by CLASSE of “the population taking permanent control of politics, at the base, as the primary site of political legitimacy.”

Of more immediate interest, given the PQ’s program, is CLASSE’s evocation of “a direct democracy called into action at every moment … expressed in assemblies: at school, at work and in neighbourhoods.” One practical response to this demand lies in electronic referendums. What if the Quebec students had had the possibility of bypassing the elected legislature and taking their demands directly to such a referendum? It would surely be difficult for even the most extreme of student leaders to justify taking to the streets and refusing to engage in such a process to achieve their objectives – a process of seeking to win over, rather than antagonizing, public opinion.19

While the Internet raises possibilities for such referendums that did not exist before, there still remain huge obstacles to setting them up – as experience in countries that have experimented with e-voting has taught – in such a way as to safeguard the process from manipulation or fraud. Personally I would prefer to avoid facing this choice. The Internet makes direct democracy technically feasible, but it is not yet clear that it could overcome the problem of lack of accountability. In traditional direct democracy, in any community larger than a small town, citizen-voters in a referendum – unlike members of a legislative assembly – know that they cannot be held accountable for their choice. This becomes especially acute in tax policy, as experienced notably in California with the infamous Proposition 13 but also, as John Richards recounts in this section, in British Columbia with the summer 2011 referendum on the harmonized sales tax.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of groups thinking about incentives and safeguards that would make it difficult to participate in such referendums without being informed, or keep them from being taken over by an unrepresentative minority, or even incorporate an element of accountability. One example is provided by a group for which democracy and the Internet are inseparable: the German Pirate Party. A recent report reveals that a few of the local Pirate Party chapters, notably the one in Berlin where they have entered the local parliament, are experimenting with an open-source platform called “Liquid Feedback.” Any of the 6,000 members who use it can propose a policy. If the proposal picks up a 10 per cent quorum within a set period, it becomes the focus. Alternative proposals are offered, and after the rival versions battle it out, members vote. Liquid Feedback can now be accessed only by registered party members. It allows the use of pseudonyms, so that there is no record of exactly which user account corresponds to which person, but there is discussion of requiring participants to operate under their own names. The idea is to develop a prototype for a future version of democracy.

Another example, cited by Judy Rebick in her article, is an app developed by John Richardson called PublicForums, which takes the principles of consensus and makes them scalable through online voting.

As far as giving content to the electronic discussion, the various Voter Advice Applications (VAAs), the Canadian version of which is Vote Compass, have developed impressive instruments for consulting the population on election-related issues. And there are groups in various places working on the ground rules for such a process. The accompanying article by Brad Kempo sets out the ideas of one such Canadian group, which calls itself the Canadian Citizens Party and which, at least, provides some food for thought.

I would like to think that there is still an alternative to weakening party-based representative democracy by adopting proposals such as those suggested by Kempo and Lyon – that we can still make representative democracy appeal to the Internet generation through electoral system reform, innovative approaches to civic education and voting at 16. But I am even more convinced that something must be done to provide a meaningful alternative to those who, we can be sure, will again seek to use social media to reduce democracy to street actions.

Continue reading “Social media politics”

When the Liberals announced that they would not vote down the 2008 budget, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote, “The recent, silly, occasionally frenzied speculation about an election will end, for which Canadians can only be grateful.” Indeed we were grateful, but exactly who was doing the silly, frenzied speculating? The answer is of course obvious.

Exhibit A: The February 6, 2008, Globe and Mail announced, “It has been two years to the day since Stephen Harper and his Conservative cabinet formally took office,” and invited readers to “join Globe Columnist Jeffrey Simpson online.” The subject? Not what the government had or hadn’t accomplished but “How has Harper managed to survive? … How is doing in its neverending quest to position itself for a majority government after the next election?” Below was a story about the aid program to help economically depressed regions. The headline: “Aid package could forestall election.”

Exhibit B: The next day in La Presse, our other “paper of record,” Ottawa correspondent Joel-Denis Bellavance’s story began, “After almost two years as head of a minority government, Stephen Harper is burning with desire to go into an election campaign.” Opposite was Vincent Marissal’s column entitled “Five good reasons for a spring election” (author’s translation and emphasis).

Articles like these, full of silly, frenzied speculation about an imminent election, are ubiquitous. Politicians cooperating to pass bills or organize debates are not newsworthy, but any statement that can fuel speculation about the government falling is page-one material – the political variant of “if it bleeds, it leads.” And yet, in this case, reporters’ and columnists’ prophecies were not self-fulfilling: the inevitable election turned out not to be.

The institutional context in which Canadian politics takes place has changed, in a way that makes it perfectly reasonable for the opposition not to vote nonconfidence on a budget it does not agree with. But our pundits and reporters have failed to notice the change. When it came to the budget, the main reaction was one of scorn for Stéphane Dion’s cowardice or hypocrisy. Fortunately for Dion, the Cadman and Obama/NAFTA affairs got him off the hot seat. But the reality is that, given our minority government situation, he should never have been there in the first place.

Minority Government

To put it simply, we no longer have minority governments; we have Minority Government. Minority governments are no longer an aberration. They have become standard fare, the result of an important change in Canada’s political makeup that has not received the attention it deserves.

We hadminority governments in Ottawa in 1957–58, 1972–74 and 1979–80, and everyone reasonably expected that the next election would return a majority government. Both our political practice and our political culture were majoritarian. A normal government consisted of one party holding more than half the seats and calling all the shots. The noise may have been on the Commons floor, but decisions were taken behind the closed doors of majority party cabinets and caucuses. Confidence motions and budget denunciations were part of the opposition’s game and were not intended to defeat the government. Rather, the opposition was trying to strengthen its position for the next election, which would take place three to five years after the last, on a day of the prime minister’s choosing.

There was one exceptional period: in 1962, 1963 and 1965, the Créditistes won enough seats in rural and small-town Quebec to deny the Liberals their expected majorities. The Créditiste episode showed that even before the rise of the sovereigntist movement, Quebecers in large numbers were prepared to vote for a home-based third party with no chance of forming a government. But the Créditistes, with their protests against modernization, were doomed, and the restoration of the majority system was inevitable. Such is not the case with the Bloc Québécois, with which Quebec voters sympathetic to sovereignty have found a separate and durable home in federal politics since 1993.

The rise of the Bloc Québécois fundamentally transformed Canadian federal politics by making minority government the norm. However, that transformation was masked by another dramatic event: the disintegration of the Progressive Conservatives. With the resulting split of the centre-right vote between Reform and what remained of the Conservatives, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien were able to win three successive majorities. But when the centre-right reunited, the mask was stripped away and the new reality became – or should have become – apparent. With two major parties, and with the Bloc entrenched in roughly half of Quebec’s seats, Minority Government replaced Majority Government as the normal state of affairs.

It’s now 15 years since the rise of the Bloc. That should have been enough time for our journalists and pundits to have noticed that we have an underlying partisan cleavage that makes minority government more likely than not. Confirmation can be found, if anyone still needs it, in the fact that its support has held up even though memory of the sponsorship scandal, which the Bloc effectively played on in the last election, has faded.

But to judge from the way they cover the current Parliament, our correspondents and pundits see a minority government rather than Minority Government, expecting the parties to act as they did when minority governments were short-lived exceptions. They take for granted that this minority government will be short-lived, and they interpret party behaviour in that context. But the logic has changed. Leaders and, especially, ordinary MPs know that provoking an election will most likely not result in the sought-after majority government. Instead, there will be yet another minority Parliament: overall party strength will have changed little, but a bunch of incumbents will have lost their seats.

The MPs’ reticence is reinforced every time they go out among their constituents. Ordinary citizens do not want an election. This is not simply a matter of acknowledging the inevitable – Canadians actually seem to like the idea of minority government. For example, on January 28, the Toronto Star reported a poll the Canadian Press commissioned from Harris/Decima that asked 1,000 respondents to choose the kind of split they would like to see in a hypothetical Parliament of 100 seats. Projecting those percentages to the 308 House of Commons seats, the Liberals would end up with 111 seats, the Tories 95, the NDP 46, the Bloc 31 and the Greens 25. In a later, similar CP poll, “54 per cent said a Conservative minority would be acceptable, 49 per cent said a Tory majority would be acceptable. The results were almost identical for Liberals: 59 per cent said a Liberal minority would be acceptable while 50 per cent said a Liberal majority would be fine.” Canadians like the idea of not giving all the power to one party, especially the Conservatives, and they like the idea of parties cooperating to arrive at compromises.

Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest and Vermont’s Governor Douglas during news conference at National Assembly in Quebec City

A similar phenomenon has occurred provincially in Quebec, which in March 2007 elected its first minority government in well over a century. In a March 2008 CROP–La Presse poll, 66 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that election of a minority government had served the interests of the population. Almost as high a proportion – 61 per cent – expressed their approval of Premier Jean Charest’s government, the highest approval rating for any Quebec government in the last 20 years.

This is a message quite different from what the politicians have been hearing from journalists and pundits in Ottawa. But we should keep in mind that most Canadians are not paying attention to them. According to my own research, fewer than half report watching the TV news or reading a newspaper on a given day; that number falls to 40 per cent for 15- to 25-year-olds.

There is additional indirect evidence of Canadian appreciation for minority government in the changed strategy of opponents of proportional representation. In the days of Majority Government, simply invoking fears of the minority governments that more proportional electoral systems would engender was an effective tactic. But in the campaign to block the Citizens’ Assembly’s proposal to change the voting system in Ontario’s fall 2007 referendum, such efforts fell flat. The anti-reform editorials and op-eds increasingly (and, alas, effectively) relied on arguments evoking fears of unelected hacks from party lists sneaking into the legislature.

Fixed voting dates

Another element has recently been added to the equation. Soon after taking power, the Harper government introduced a bill to fix voting dates, as promised during the election. After being delayed by Liberals in the Senate, the fixed election date bill received Royal Assent and came into force on May 3, 2007. Each federal election will now take place on the third Monday in October, four years after the previous general election. Our next election is scheduled for October 19, 2009.

To its credit, the government thus lived up to its election platform commitment despite finding itself in a minority position. Fixed election dates confirm in law the basic principle that elections belong to the voters: election day is the day they can express themselves on how they are to be governed. Allowing the governing party to call elections when it sees fit is unjustifiable, and confirms to a population already cynical about politics that elections are there for politicians to manipulate in their own interests.

As Table 1 shows, fixed election dates have been adopted or are being considered in almost every province. In Quebec, the Director General of Elections made such a call in his report in December 2007. Even in Alberta it has been proposed by the opposition, though so far given short shrift by the governing Tories. Clearly there is a widespread understanding among political leaders that something must be done to reduce the democratic deficit.

This is a major reform, one would say. Yet how many people reading this article know about it? It comes as news even to well-informed citizens because the bill received very little media attention, likely because the very idea that a minority government could last out its term was unthinkable. Of course, technically, an election call can come any day, since a clause in the act states, “Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.” But it is clear that this clause is meant to be invoked when the government is defeated on a confidence motion.

Harper knew all this when he presented the bill. He didn’t have to do so: public opinion was not mobilized behind it, nor were the other parties demanding it. While he and his ministers have been happy to take partisan advantage of the fact that the onus falls on the opposition to bring down the government, the record, overall, is of a governing party trying to govern as a minority.

The only group with a neverending, burning desire to force an election, it would appear, are our pundits and reporters. Indeed, passage of the law appears to have had no effect on election speculation. No one seems to have asked why a government “burning with desire to go into an election” as part of a“neverending quest to position itself for a majority government” would spend political capital on a law that removes its power to select the election date.

The role of opposition parties

What about the other parties? Were existence of the fixed election date act common knowledge, it would place the onus for forcing a new election more firmly on their shoulders. For the Bloc and the NDP, it is not seen as their decision to make, and they will thus not bear the blame – especially within their own relatively narrow constituencies.

The Liberals have had the hardest time amid the frenzied speculation, with their leader’s masculinity in effect being impugned by the other parties and by cartoonists. One can sympathize with the feelings expressed by one Liberal MP as quoted in Le Devoir (February 8): “We’re sick of being presented as unprincipled cowards.” As a political scientist, Dr. Dion could have tried to make the obvious point that while in a majority government situation a nonconfidence vote is pure ritual and thus always invoked by the opposition however trivial its criticism of a budget, it is perfectly reasonable to separate the two when passage of such a motion brings on an unwanted election. But admittedly, this would not have been easy given both Dion’s egghead image and the tone of attacks from other parties, as gleefully reported in bold headlines in the media.

Dion’s Liberals could have avoided placing themselves in this position if they had publicly welcomed the fixed election date act as an important democratic step when it was discussed early in the current term.1 They would thus have clearly signalled their expectation that only under extreme circumstances would they be responsible for forcing an election. This would have changed the context significantly, and they would have had less trouble taking credit for an honourable compromise on Afghanistan and explaining that their criticisms of the budget did not justify laying aside the important principle that when an election takes place is not something politicians should manipulate for partisan purposes.

Taking this “what if?” scenario a bit further, the Liberals could have indicated an openness to an understanding with the NDP and the Greens for the 2009 election, not merely to avoid splitting the vote, but to have a government representative of the largest voting bloc: those on the centre-left of the political spectrum. As Table 2 shows, when it comes to key values, there are two political cultures in Parliament: the Tories and everyone else. The Liberals might have learned from the reaction to Dion’s decision not to oppose Green Party leader Elizabeth May in her effort to win the Nova Scotia seat currently held by Tory deputy leader Peter MacKay. While their local members grumbled, public opinion generally welcomed the agreement. There could even have been a Liberal-NDP-Green agreement to reform our electoral system to make it more compatible with interparty cooperation.

Minority governments are stable in Europe because of fixed election dates and proportional electoral systems that encourage cooperation through formal and informal coalitions. In our scenario of a less frenzied climate induced by fixed election dates, Canadian party leaders might have said: if we are going to have minority governments anyway, we might as well have stable ones based on cooperative alliances produced under PR.

Unfortunately, the opportunity presented by fixed election dates for developing a political culture compatible with Minority Government (and we should always keep in mind that a government with more than half the seats put into office by the ballots of only 40 per cent of voters is still, in essence, a minority government) was missed. And so Ottawa remains trapped in a majoritarian political culture with little resonance among the people. This is best illustrated by the recurrent show of New Democrats smugly contrasting their own “courage” with the cowardice of the Liberals. The display is music to the ears of the Tories in the House, but judging by the poor NDP showing in the March 17 byelections, it falls on the deaf ears of the voters.

A rational political climate can exist only if those who interpret politics in the media let it. I end with a plea to our pundits and correspondents. We have a stable minority government, by and large; Canadians welcome it and the politicians have come to terms with it. When you explain the choices that parties and political actors make, leave room for the possibility that they may have something to do with living up to the voters’ expectation of a well-functioning government. Don’t simply assume they are nothing more than tactics in a neverending quest for majority government. Things are different in an institutional context of Minority Government and fixed election dates. It’s time you noticed.

Continue reading “Dr. Dion, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Minority Government”

Articles in this and previous issues of Inroads have portrayed the positive side of the “Quebec model.” But in light of what we have been witnessing in Quebec this spring, there is clearly another side. I write in early May as the governing Quebec Liberal Party meets in the town of Victoriaville northeast of Montreal, surrounded by thousands of striking junior college and university students – who are apparently undeterred by the fact that more than two thirds of Quebecers support the government’s decision to raise university tuition.

The student leaders and their supporters have often pointed to Scandinavia as a model in their demand to freeze, and reduce to zero, university tuition. And yet, even though my work has presented a generally positive portrait of Scandinavian policies, this is a strike for which I have no sympathy. For someone who operates in a university setting in Quebec and Sweden, as I do, this is not a contradiction.

The reality is that free university education in Scandinavia is one spoke in a wheel, the other spokes of which are policies and institutions that are largely absent – and unobtainable – in Quebec. Indeed, the real contradiction lies in the position of the various faculty unions and associations that support the strike. Those whose conditions would be most adversely affected if the Scandinavian system were instituted here are university professors. To understand this, we need to compare conditions affecting university education in Scandinavia with those in Quebec, as to both costs and benefits:

  • There is no general BA in Scandinavia; all university education is specialized, and thus shorter in number of years. This also means that university programs are not only less costly but, on average, less universally accessible.
  • They are also less costly because, in comparison with this country, university professors get lower pay and – unless they have successfully competed for research grants – teach more than twice as many hours per year.
  • As everyone knows, Nordic taxes are higher than Canadian ones. But less known is the fact that it is the mass of the population whose taxes make up the difference – not the rich, taxing whom produces little. In Sweden everyone who earns a full-time salary pays a minimum income tax of 25 per cent. And everyone pays a 25 per cent VAT. Would the adults who support the Quebec students agree to pay far more in taxes than would be saved in their children’s tuition fees?

The crucial fact is that free university education, like all other welfare state benefits constituting the Scandinavian model, is paid for. There is no free lunch. The decisions to implement such programs result from a consensus developed over time and expressed through electoral choices, not in response to noisy street demonstrations and blocked school doors.

This is not the case in Quebec. Even with the tuition increase, Quebec’s debt level will be high by the standard of the other provinces – and very high compared to Scandinavia. Given the constraints, if Quebec continued to freeze tuition, let alone if it tried to bring tuition to zero, it would be moving not toward the Scandinavian model but toward the model of another country well known to Quebecers: France. In France, the pattern has been to ignore the economic costs of social choices such as reducing the number of working years or working hours. As a result, there is no money to begin to adequately address the deterioration of state institutions.

Especially hard-hit are the public universities (of which I have first-hand experience as a visiting professor at the Sorbonne), with their huge classes, rundown facilities and outdated technology. So you get two tiers, with expensive private universities for those who can afford them. Students at “Sciences Po” in Paris pay more in tuition than their equivalents in sciences politiques at the Université de Montréal will pay with the tution increase. Before taking to the streets, Quebec’s students should have asked their confrères and consœurs from France, who come to Quebec universities in very large numbers, if that is the direction they should take.