The province of Quebec now has a new government. On April 7th, in a majority of ridings, the population chose to elect a representative of the Liberal Party of Quebec, making neurosurgeon Philippe Couillard the new Premier. Former PQ leader Pauline Marois thus became not only the only woman to lead Quebec, but also the first Premier to fail to win a second term for his or her party in more than 40 years.
The Liberals’ resounding victory must not be viewed simply as that victory of Couillard alone, the triumph of federalism, the demise of the sovereigntist movement, nor even proof that the fight against corruption has failed. A myriad of factors, sometimes contradictory, can explain voters’ renewed support for the party formerly led by Jean Charest. In any case, the campaign certainly hasn’t contributed much to moving discussions forward.
The issues talked about the most have all been addressed in a truly pointless way. After Bill 60 and 8 months of wedge politics, what was there left to say? Even more so with parties which had been unflinchingly defending the same positions from the very beginning. Regarding the referendum: it’s ok, we got it. No one wants a new one, even though some wished that we’d wanted one. Finally, it’s hard to say “case closed” when talking about integrity until the end of the Commission Charbonneau hearings.
The non-debate on the economy
So have we had the chance to talk a lot about the economy? Not really. We had a debate over job numbers —over which statistics the Premier should use to base her record on. But what do the parties have planned in terms of industrial policy? They didn’t have as much to say on that topic. Industrial policies do appear in their electoral platforms (cf. the CAQ’s Projet St-Laurent, the Liberals’ Plan Nord +, or Québec Solidaire’s green technology initiatives), but instead we talked about the (im)possibility of holding a referendum, (the lack of) integrity, and Bill 60. Over and over again.
We were told that an entrepreneur has a better chance of creating jobs than a social worker or a doctor, but was there any demonstration made that they would manage the state differently? Not really. An attempt was made to convince us instead that a person who managed to “create” jobs in the private sector is better equipped to coordinate efforts to help stimulate an entire state’s economy (while also promising a hiring freeze in public service).
Lying behind this statement is the insinuation that a single man is capable of great things. The part played by public services (education, health care, security, infrastructure, etc.) and public funding (subsidies, tax credits, advantageous tax system) in creating and maintaining private companies is widely underestimated in such a worldview. Stimulating the economy? Why that must be just like investing in a start-up, one would suppose!
Financial frameworks, realism, and politics
The various parties’ financial frameworks were compared and measured against “reality,” because the next government shouldn’t rock the boat. All promises which tend towards greater (or a different form of) state intervention are regarded with some suspicion, even if revenues and expenditures are balanced.
Schools are falling in ruins, students need increasing support, the environment is on the verge of hitting the tipping point, emergency room wait times and the difficulties in finding a GP point towards a healthcare system which desperately needs to be restructured, families find themselves in more and more debt and will have less left when retirement comes… but we should first deal with the grave budgetary issues. The rest will have to wait for a growth which might never return.
Whether media is to blame for having wrongly reported on the parties’ ideas or the latter are for not having managed to properly formulate their proposals, the outcome is the same: profound weariness.
Now, we have a new government. The day after the elections, Couillard immediately started talking about the need to change the tone of the conversation, to reach out to other parties in the National Assembly. His good will might be sincere, but what we’ll have learnt from the campaign is that economic, social, and environmental debates are boiled down to one or two simplistic slogans to corner one’s opponent. All in all, there seems to be little hope for the future…
One of the greatest problems with elections is that parties go head to head in view solely of getting elected. They know that their term can last no more than 4 years, a period during which tangible results will need to occur if they hope to get reelected.
We are thus stuck with long-term visions being compressed into short-term measures. And yet, the reforms needed to have a better and fairer society would require parties to dare to break free from the limits of a first term both in relation to the implementation of their program and to the evaluation of its economic and social impact.
This article was written by Eve-Lyne Couturier, a researcher with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank.