In mid-September, the Liberal Party of Quebec —not to be confused with its federal counterpart— held its fourth Forum des idées (“Idea Forum”). Over the course of a week-end, the Liberal family gathered to discuss social issues: ending poverty, the minimum wage, guaranteed minimum income, and fostering greater intergenerational equity.
Sounds unreal? The very same party that triggered social upheaval in 2012 to snatch a few million dollars away from students and that has been imposing the most severe round of cuts in the last two decades now wants to change its reputation.
Is this a good or a bad thing? A bit of both. Of course, we can only rejoice if these two days lead the government to radically change its course. However, one would need to be quite naïve to believe it could actually happen. In fact, the government’s upcoming electoral promises won’t leave much room for a turnaround. Let’s take a closer look.
Balanced budget: It’s hard to imagine any radical change of course given just how much this economic dogma dictates public policy. After having cut more than 4 billion dollars in the last two years, it would be risky for the Liberal Party to all of a sudden announce new investments. A good number of people in Quebec would raise questions about the need to cut back public service funding so drastically if only to divert investments elsewhere. The hard-line approach to austerity would reveal itself to be what it has always been: an unfounded policy. It is much more reasonable to think that the Liberal Party won’t actually be very forthcoming with new spending and that it will attempt to provide itself with a discount facelift on social issues.
Generations Fund: The pretext not to reinvest massively is already there. Premier Philippe Couillard’s government will surely abide by the balanced budget rule, but has already found where it will spend the financial leeway it gained through austerity. Just like last year, the Generations Fund will receive the bulk of surpluses, thereby leaving public services weakened and underfunded. While it would still be possible to meet pressing social needs, such as home care, the government of Quebec will instead choose to “reassure the markets”.
Tax cuts: The Liberal plan to win the 2018 provincial elections and stay in power relies on tax cuts. The Finance Minister has already signaled his intention to abolish the unpopular “health tax”. We need to wait and see if any other such announcements will be made in the next budget that will be presented in March 2017.
One thing’s for sure: given these three imperatives, there won’t be much space left to translate the Idea Forum’s lofty ambitions into concrete policies, or at least into policies that will indeed meet the needs of the population.
Take for instance the guaranteed minimum income. The proposed welfare reform in Bill 70 suggests that the government is in fact trying to lower the bar for governement support down to around $400 per month. With such a low amount —no matter how guaranteed it is—, nobody in their right mind can expect poverty to recede an inch in the upcoming years.
There could still be a small opening on the issue of minimum wage. The presence of well-known entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer —a former Dragons’ Den mentor in the Quebec version of the TV show and proponent of the $15 minimum wage— does provide a little hope on that front. In fact, currently, the only significant public policy change likely to be implemented that would tackle inequality is probably a significant increase in the minimum wage.
Philippe Hurteau is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.