Sustainable Development in Quebec and Flanders: Institutionalizing Symbolic Politics?
Happaerts, Sander, Canadian Public Administration
Twenty-five years have passed since the concept of sustainable development was put on the global political agenda with the publication of the Brundtland Report, the outcome document of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The WCED had been convened to address the deterioration of the environment and its consequences on human development, and to reconcile the concerns of the global North and the global South. It advanced the view that environmental concerns lie at the heart of economic development, social problems and even international peace and security, and it linked together humanity's most serious challenges, which had traditionally been treated separately. Since the publication of the report, governments at all levels have struggled with the concept of sustainable development, which was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987: 43). Because of the specific policy principles that sustainable development entails, such as participation, horizontal policy integration or the need for a long-term perspective, sustainable development is in some respects hard to reconcile with policy making in traditional policy areas. It involves layers of complexity and poses several challenges to policy makers who want to institutionalize the policy concept (Dovers 1997; Farrell et al. 2005). Nevertheless, many governments have attempted over the past decades to incorporate sustainable development into their policies. Those efforts, however, are often characterized as symbolic commitments (Rabe 1997; Meadowcroft 2007). In June 2012, world leaders gathered in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, UNCSD), where they discussed the institutional framework for sustainable development and new concepts such as the "green economy," and where the renewal of political commitment to sustainable development was a major goal (Van den Brande, Happaerts and Bouteligier 2011).
In Canada, the province of Quebec is increasingly promoting itself as a leader in sustainable development and related issues such as climate change, especially in the absence of clear commitments at the federal level. Since 2004, the government of Quebec has designed a set of instruments to anchor sustainable development within its public administration. Across the Atlantic, the Belgian region of Flanders has engaged in a very similar approach. The Flemish government wants to make Flanders one of the five "top regions" in Europe, including on sustainability questions. While few authors have systematically studied subnational sustainable development policies, this article offers an empirical description and critical analysis of two self-reported subnational leaders in sustainable development. After a first section which outlines some conceptual and theoretical notions of (subnational) sustainable development governance, the methodology of the analysis is presented. Subsequently, the sustainable development policies of Quebec and Flanders are described and critically assessed. The final section offers a comparison of both cases in order to draw lessons for sustainable development governance.
Sustainable development policies and subnational governments
After the publication of the Brundtland Report, political guidelines for sustainable development were crafted at the international level. A first important milestone was the Rio Summit in 1992 (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED). It produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which contained twenty-seven principles to be integrated into policy and decision making (UNCED 1992b). Rio also delivered the action plan entitled Agenda 21, which formulated specific recommendations on a wide range of mechanisms to implement sustainable development (UNCED 1992a). For instance, it urged United Nations (UN) member states to develop national sustainable development strategies (SDSs) in order to harmonize their existing policies and direct them towards the attainment of sustainable development. Agenda 21 also generated widespread support for the view that sustainable development has three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. However, ten years after Rio, the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 (the World Summit on Sustainable Development, WSSD) had to repeat most of those recommendations because the Rio commitments had not been sufficiently implemented. A new summit, again in Rio, took place in 2012. In the face of a global financial and economic crisis, the Rio+20 Summit focused on the concept of a "green economy" in order to renew political commitment to sustainable development. The international discussions on sustainable development are important political hallmarks, because they function as a trigger and as a shaping force for the policies Initiated at lower governance levels (Happaerts and Van den Brande 2011).
In the past decade, academic research on governance for sustainable development has blossomed. Rooted in the social sciences, it is concerned with understanding how human societies find ways to steer their development along a more sustainable path. Authors have described how sustainable development has been interpreted and pursued by different governments, and they have compared the different political approaches and institutional arrangements at the international (Bomberg 2004), national (Lafferty and Meadowcroft 2000b), subnational (Bruyninckx, Happaerts and Van den Brande 2012) and local levels (Lafferty 2001). Such studies reveal large differences and show that sustainable development can be interpreted and institutionalized in divergent ways. For instance, Kris Bachus, Hans Bruyninckx and Mayke Poesen-Vandeputte (2005) have identified four different "governance models" in which Western governments organize their sustainable development policies. First, the holistic governance model gives equal consideration to economic, social and environmental objectives, and translates sustainable development horizontally across all policy domains. In a second model, the policy principles model, the integration of sustainable development into policies is founded on a given set of principles, on which the entirety of governmental policy making is guided. Third, in the environmental integration model, governments choose to attain sustainable development through the integration of environmental concerns into other policy domains, such as agriculture, energy or spatial planning. And fourth, when applying the ecological interpretation of sustainable development model, a government explicitly opts for a strategy with an environmental emphasis, in order to support its view that environmental policy needs the greatest attention in the pursuit of sustainable development (Bachus, Bruyninckx and Poesen-Vandeputte 2005).
From a theoretical point of view, the analyses conducted in the field have tried to determine which factors are crucial for a functional policy, and they have been helpful in identifying the obstacles and challenges to the pursuit of sustainable development. For instance, countries that enjoy sound economic performance have traditionally paid more attention to sustainable development, while the concept has struggled for a place on the agenda in countries that face economic hardship (Lafferty and Meadowcroft 2000a; Happaerts, Bruyninckx and Van den Brande 2012). Moreover, certain historical and cultural factors tend to influence governments' sustainable development policies, such as a tradition of solidarity with the global South (Lafferty and Meadowcroft 2000a). One of the most significant explanatory factors is the political context. As the presence of political will is vital for sound sustainable development policy, scholars underscore the importance of policy entrepreneurs. A policy entrepreneur, usually an elected or administrative official, plays a key role in developing new policy ideas and securing support for those ideas among different stakeholders (Rabe 1997).
Many authors have studied governance for sustainable development in federal systems such as Canada. On the one hand, they state that federal countries encounter more problems with the effectiveness of intergovernmental coordination and the reconciliation of national and subnational priorities, and that they risk the overlapping of strategies and the waste of administrative and intellectual resources (Lafferty and Meadowcroft 2000a). Those risks pose a problem for vertical policy integration, which is essential for sustainable development (Happaerts 2012a). On the other hand, researchers have concluded that federalism affords many opportunities for policy experimentation and innovation for sustainable development, especially at the subnational level (Jorgensen 2007; Meadowcroft 2008).
Within several federal or decentralized states, subnational entities have taken the initiative to develop a sustainable development policy (Bruyninckx, Happaerts and Van den Brande 2012). Governments at the subnational level are often well placed, because many of them have competences in specific domains where sustainable development becomes concrete, such as transport, agriculture or environment. Moreover, they frequently have to implement international decisions on sustainable development even though they are not recognized as actors in international decision making. The ambition to lead the way on certain policy-making issues can, in some cases, be explained by "identity politics." Indeed, the presence of territorial identities is frequently invoked in the literature on comparative regionalism and federalism as a determining factor of subnational policies (e.g., Keating 1999; Lecours 2002). (1) Such identity politics are more likely to be observed in cases where subnational entities have their own language and culture, and in those with aspirations for higher autonomy, articulated by nationalist political parties. Sometimes called "stateless nations," some commonly cited examples are Quebec, Flanders, Bavaria, Scotland and the Basque Country (e.g., Hepburn 2010). Although identity politics are most often adduced to explain the external policies of subnational governments, they also play a role in other policies (Keating and McEwen 2005). In the area of sustainable development, identity politics influence the degree to which subnational governments feel bound by the legitimacy pressures exerted by international organizations (Happaerts 2012b).
One of the major conclusions of research on governance for sustainable development is that most policies designed by governments operate in the margins of day-to-day policy making and achieve little more than simply adding a sustainable development veneer to existing initiatives. For instance, Meadowcroft states that many existing SDSs are "cosmetic" strategies, "almost entirely devoid of political and administrative relevance," and to which "nobody who matters pays [...] any attention whatsoever" (Meadowcroft 2007: 156). This is manifested in limited agenda attention, low public visibility and no media coverage, and it results in a policy that does not interfere with existing administrative and political action. Susan Baker (2007) refers to the cosmetic actions of governments with regard to sustainable development as "symbolic politics." That label is attributed to empty rhetorical commitments without significant political relevance. Indeed, although the policies are of little relevance, the concept of sustainable development does receive a high degree of declaratory commitment. According to Jens Newig (2007), symbolic governmental acts have low-impact effectiveness, but high politico-strategic effectiveness. He explains that they usually achieve their intended political objective, which is to exhibit the committed action of policy makers or to remove an issue from the political agenda. Such policies are thus--deceivingly--conducted to manage certain problems rather than to resolve them. The reason for the symbolic character of many sustainable development policies is a lack of political will. Even if decision makers allow sustainable development onto the political agenda, they avoid making more than marginal changes to mainstream socioeconomic development.
Comparing Quebec and Flanders
This article takes a closer look at the sustainable development policies of Quebec and Flanders. Both subnational governments form part of an extensively decentralized federal state, and have manifested the ambition to be pioneers in sustainable development. Those similarities justify a detailed analysis of the two cases, particularly in light of their leadership discourse. A comparison of Quebec and Flanders also facilitates the identification of patterns that might be useful for the study of other subnational governments that have undertaken initiatives for sustainable development.
This article summarizes the precise steps that both governments have taken to institutionalize sustainable development and explains why specific choices were made. Subsequently, guided by the previous discussion of symbolic politics, the article offers a critical assessment of the policies of Quebec and Flanders. This assessment is then used as the starting point for a comparison of the two approaches, which considers possible lessons to be learned for sustainable development governance.
The analysis is based on the study of policy documents and secondary literature, and on a series of interviews with political and administrative officials, non-governmental stakeholders and experts in both cases (twenty-one in Quebec; twenty-five in Flanders). Some officials at the federal level in Canada and Belgium were also interviewed. The empirical research was conducted between early 2009 and mid-2011. (2)
The government of Quebec was among the first to put sustainable development on the political agenda in the late 1980s, when it funded the French edition of the Brundtland Report in 1988. The activities of the Brundtland Commission--which in general had great resonance in Canada (Toner and Meadowcroft 2009)--prompted the government of Quebec to take some initial institutional steps for sustainable development, such as the establishment of the Round Table on Environment and Economy (the first in Canada), the creation of a sustainable development division within the Environment Ministry and the launch of the Interministerial Committee on Sustainable Development. That committee still exists today, and is an administrative horizontal coordination body that represents all departments at the level of assistant deputy ministers. Those steps, however, did not immediately lead to the establishment of a transversal sustainable development policy. The triggering event for the institutionalization of that policy was the return to power in 2003 of Quebec's Liberal party (PLQ, Parti liberal du Quebec), which had promised the "re-engineering" of the state, including the environmental reorientation of government activities (Audet and Gendron 2012). New Premier Jean Charest ordered his environment minister, Thomas Mulcair, to develop a "green plan," (3) but that plan was blocked by other ministers with an economic orientation, reportedly because Minister Mulcair had been overly ambitious with certain measures, such as environmental taxation (Audet and Gendron 2012). The green plan was then turned into a "sustainable development plan" (Gouvernement du Quebec 2004), which Mulcair presented for public consultation at the end of 2004, together with a draft act on sustainable development. After an extensive consultation phase, consisting of both a personal tour of the regions by Minister Mulcair and a parliamentary commission, the Sustainable Development Act was unanimously adopted in 2006. It calls for an urgent shift in modes of development and seeks to promote sustainable development in Quebec by embedding the concept into the public administration (Assemblee Nationale 2006). The Act also orders the development of a SDS and sustainable development action plans by each ministry and a series of public organizations (governmental agencies and public enterprises)--more than 140 entities in total. Furthermore, the Act establishes the position of a sustainable development commissioner within the Office of the Auditor General of Quebec, it creates the Green Fund and it enshrines the right to a healthful environment and one in which biodiversity is preserved into Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The government's first SDS was approved at the end of 2007, identifying a series of priority themes and goals (Gouvernement du Quebec 2007). Those are further translated into 1,184 specific actions in the sustainable development action plans of the public organizations (MDDEP 2009a). Subsequently, a set of indicators was developed to monitor the progress made by Quebec and its public administration with regard to sustainable development. The entire policy is managed by the Sustainable Development Coordination Bureau, a sixteen person team within the sustainable development division of the Environment Ministry. The latter was officially renamed the "Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks."
In the design of Quebec's sustainable development policy, it is clear that some inspiration was gained from the model put in place at the federal level after 1995 (see Toner 2000), such as the creation of a sustainable development commissioner and the requirement for each department to develop its own action plan. But certain differences between the two strengthen Quebec's approach, such as its breadth (encompassing 140 organizations) or the fact that an overarching SDS guides the individual action plans. The government of Quebec frequently emphasizes that it has learned from the experience of other governments and wants to do better and emerge as a leader (Gouvernement du Quebec 2004). Since their return to power in 2003, the Liberals have expressed the ambition to make Quebec the North American leader in sustainable development and climate change (Gouvernement du Quebec 2006). It underpins the province's strategy to distinguish Quebec from the rest of Canada with regard to environmental policies; most particularly from the Canadian federal government, which, under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has made many environmental decisions that Quebec opposed. (4) Quebec's distinct sustainability discourse emphasizes climate change, owing in large part to the province's particular energy profile, which differs fundamentally from other provinces. With hydropower delivering the major part of its electricity, Quebec automatically scores well with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, certainly in comparison to the rest of Canada or to the United States. It is one of the features that is eagerly presented by the government in order to portray Quebec as a "green" territory. The sustainability discourse thus becomes one of the tools used by the government to attract foreign investment. Those investments, however, frequently involve the exploitation of natural resources, on which a significant part of Quebec's economy is based. For instance, when Premier Charest travelled to Europe to promote his new Plan Nord--a plan to exploit the economic assets of the province's vast arctic region--the theme of the trip was "the sustainable development of the north of Quebec: riches to exploit, an opportunity for Europe" (Quebec International 2011, own translation).
Given its desire to show leadership and to learn from other examples, the government also took into account major international guidelines regarding sustainable development governance. This approach is evident in the government's interpretation of sustainable development (reflecting the three pillars), in its choice of particular themes and in the development of certain instruments (e.g., the indicators). At the same time, several characteristics of its policy goals are derived from the domestic context in Quebec. For instance, the Act and the SDS attach high importance to culture and the protection of Quebec's heritage, which is not reflected in the mainstream international sustainable development agenda. (5) In addition, in contrast to international guidelines, Quebec's policy pays no attention whatsoever to the North-South dimension of sustainable development, i.e., solidarity with developing countries or the avoidance of externalizing certain costs of development onto countries of the South. Both observations are explained by Quebec's sociocultural reality as an isolated francophone entity surrounded by Anglo-Saxon cultures. Many interviewees invoke that position, and the history that lies behind it, to justify a certain protective--perhaps even selfish?--reflex in public policies.
Another observation is the relative lack of attention to environmental problems in Quebec's sustainable development policy, as compared to social and economic issues. While sustainable development is certainly not only about the environment, environmental concerns lie at the heart of the pursuit of sustainable development, and the concept loses its meaning without them (Lafferty 2002; Gendron 2005). Rene Audet and Corinne Gendron (2012) suggest that the subordination of the environmental dimension to the premise of economic growth might be the consequence of influence from Quebec's business actors. The economic elite favours formulations of sustainable development that avoid the prioritization of environmental concerns (Gendron 2006), and the PLQ is often perceived as the political arm of Quebec's business milieu (Boismenu, Dufour and Saint-Martin 2004).
A critical assessment of Quebec's sustainable development policy reveals certain strong characteristics. Two in particular are mentioned here: first, the position of the sustainable development commissioner has great potential. Serving as deputy to the auditor general of Quebec (an institution that is characteristic of democratic systems of the Westminster model), the commissioner reports annually to Parliament on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Act and on the general progress of the government's pursuit of sustainable development. Supported by a team of about twenty people, the commissioner's reports are a valuable source of information and of greater relevance than the government's own sustainable development indicators. The commissioner serves as an independent evaluation instrument of the government's sustainable development policy, which is lacking in many other jurisdictions. Second, the most interesting element of the Act is its definition of sixteen sustainable development principles. Those principles, which are a reflection of the twenty-seven principles of the Rio Declaration, have to be taken into account in all action taken by the administration. The initiative responds to the common view that sustainable development is a vague concept and difficult to translate into policies. It can thus be used as an inspiration for other governments that struggle with the operationalization of the concept. Because of the central place of the principles in Quebec's approach, and because of the overall broad policy translation of sustainable development, the governance model put in place in Quebec can be considered as a combination of the policy principles model and the holistic governance model. While some discussion can be had about the principles (for instance, regarding the Rio principles that were not retained), they constitute a potentially powerful instrument. Unfortunately, that potential is not used to its fullest extent by the government. The Sustainable Development Coordination Bureau merely "invites" public organizations to take the tools that it has developed into account (MDDEP 2009b), which is a clear departure from the wording of the Act. Consequently, many action plans do hot embrace the tools as strongly as they should.
That brings us to the weaknesses and challenges of Quebec's sustainable development policy. As a first critique, although the approach is laudable in its breadth, the policy is exclusively centred on the public administration (cf Audet and Gendron 2012). Despite the Act's call for a shift in societal development, the government has engaged in something that could be called the "bureaucratization" of sustainable development, with a focus on action plans, reports and indicators. The government attaches great importance to the cosmetic character of the policy, which is one of the main features of symbolic politics. Second, the operational goals and instruments of the policy do not live up to the strategic ambitions of the Act and the SDS. In practice, the coordinating Environment Ministry only informs and encourages other actors within the public administration to take action on sustainable development, without any real enforcement or sanctions. As a consequence, public organizations produce action plans and reports as they should, but continue "business as usual" on the ground. Moreover, interviewees have denounced the malfunctioning of some of the instruments, such as the interministerial committee. Therefore, the new sustainable development policy does not affect existing policies. As a final and most fundamental critique, the government has undertaken multiple initiatives that are opposed to sustainable development and to the spirit of its own Act (Audet, Vaillancourt and Gendron 2011). Examples are the large-scale extraction of natural resources through the above-mentioned Plan Nord or the controversial plans to exploit shale gas despite widespread concerns for its environmental impact.
As a political entity, Flanders is much younger than Quebec. Through a series of consecutive state reforms, Belgium officially became a federal state in 1993. The Belgian subnational entities gradually obtained more competences in areas such as transport, spatial planning, economy, environment, education and culture (Swenden, Brans and De Winter 2006). In 1997, the federal government in Belgium adopted one of the first sustainable development laws worldwide and established its own sustainable development policy (Rombouts 2003). Around the same time, the concept started to emerge in several policy areas in Flanders. In 2001, the Flemish government coalition of Liberals, Socialists, Greens and Nationalists decided that sustainable development should be anchored as a horizontal issue in the framework of a planned reorganization of the Flemish administration. Subsequently, the trigger for the institutionalization of sustainable development was the Johannesburg Summit, at which Flanders played an active role, inter alia by signing the Gauteng Declaration through which subnational governments committed themselves to issue subnational SDSs. (6) The Summit incited some administrative officials to establish an informal working group to consult among different departments on sustainable development issues and to develop Flemish positions for national, European and global negotiations. In 2004, those different commitments prompted the new coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists to formally assign the responsibility of sustainable development to the Flemish prime minister and to formalize the working group. The prime minister's cabinet then focused its attention on drafting the first Flemish SDS, which was approved in 2006 (Vlaamse Regering 2006). In the design of the policy, interviewees explain how the prime minister wanted Flanders to catch up rapidly with the federal government on the institutionalization of sustainable development, in order to gain a leadership position in Belgium in that sphere. The other Belgian subnational governments, in contrast, started investing in sustainable development policies much later (e.g., Happaerts 2012c). The ambition for Flanders extended to the European scale, as in the context of the government's high-profile strategy, entitled "Flanders in Action," Flanders hopes to count itself among the "top regions" in Europe, including on sustainability questions.
Similar to the strategic ambition expressed in Quebec's Sustainable Development Act, the Flemish SDS aims to correct historically rooted non-viable practices, and it strives for a change in attitudes and behaviour. The SDS is clearly motivated by international commitments. Its policy goals--which were all recycled from existing plans and strategies--are structured according to the challenges identified in the European Union's SDS (poverty and social exclusion, ageing society, climate change and energy, public health, natural resource management, transport and land use). Within those themes, the government also allocates a very small amount of subsidies to projects submitted by civil society and local authorities, in order to support good initiatives. Moreover, the government launched twelve cross-cutting operational projects, which were meant to concretize some of the goals of the policy and to extend its scope beyond the Flemish administration. Some of those projects had already been running and were thus reframed as being part of the sustainable development policy. In addition to those projects, the government issued an action plan on sustainable procurement (Vlaamse Regering 2009). It also developed a set of sustainable development indicators, but those are disconnected from any of the other elements of the policy and have no internal or external relevance. Finally, the Flemish sustainable development policy was given legal footing in 2008, when a Sustainable Development Decree was adopted by the Flemish Parliament. This decree was approved by all political parties except for the Green party, which judged the decree to be insufficiently ambitious. Indeed, the very short decree merely obliges every newly elected government to renew the Flemish SDS, but it does not mention any instruments.
For the coordination of the Flemish sustainable development policy, the prime minister established a small Team Sustainable Development within the Department of the Services for the General Government Policy. The team grew from two officials in 2006 to six in 2011. The policy is designed according to a holistic governance model, as sustainable development is approached as a meta-concept, with implications for each policy domain and a focus on finding synergies and win-win-win approaches among the economic, social and environmental dimensions.
[T]he government has engaged in something that could be called the "bureaucratization" of sustainable development
After the swearing-in of a new government coalition in 2009, the Flemish SDS was completely renewed in 2010. Two significant changes were introduced. First, the SDS now contains a comprehensive long-term strategy, which was formulated in consultation with non-governmental stakeholders. The extensive long-term vision describes how Flanders should look in 2050 with regard to energy, transport, food, housing, health and materials use (Vlaamse Regering 2011). Second, the SDS now embraces transition management as an overarching concept. Having originated in the Netherlands, transition management is a new governance approach to sustainable development. It departs from the observation that main sociotechnical systems (e.g., the energy system or the food system) are governed in a nonviable mariner. It also identifies what the sustainable configuration of those systems would be and then stipulates how the transition to those new configurations can be managed. Transition management relies on new types of interaction between governments, civil society and market actors, and on learning processes aimed at societal change (Kemp, Loorbach and Rotmans 2007; Paredis 2008). In Flanders, transition arenas were set up in the early 2000s in two domains: sustainable materials management and sustainable housing and living. However, the processes operated for several years without any reference to the Flemish sustainable development policy (Paredis 2008). Because the two arenas have yielded positive experiences (e.g., with regard to the promotion of new norms on waste and construction policy, and the inclusion of those norms into mainstream practices), they were recently embedded within the sustainable development policy. With the renewal of the SDS, the Flemish government will now experiment with transition management in other areas too.
Some positive outcomes of the policy should be highlighted. Most importantly, several operational projects are running well and have succeeded in bringing together the government and other actors for specific action on sustainable development. The best examples are the platform on education for sustainable development and the transition arena on sustainable housing and living (although those processes had been in place before sustainable development was institutionalized in Flanders and, thus, cannot fully be considered as an achievement of the coordinating sustainable development policy). Moreover, Flanders has taken recent steps that can be regarded as good practices. Furthermore, the long-term vision that was articulated in the framework of the renewed SDS is an exceptional effort that many sustainable development policies lack. (7) It should be beneficial for the future integration of the SDS with other policy processes, and may facilitate synergies between them when they are directed at a common end result. Finally, through the adoption of transition management as a new guiding concept, the SDS now has the real potential to become an added value for new and existing policy processes, considering the positive experiences with the first transition arenas.
The SDS carries little weight in Flemish politics, and does hot extend beyond the margins of day-to-day policy making
In practice, however, the Flemish government invests few resources in its sustainable development policy, which is a clear illustration of symbolic politics. Although several institutional steps have been taken since 2004, not much has happened on the ground, and the policy proves unable to live up to its ambition of correcting non-viable practices. Especially in the initial years, it seemed that the policy's only reason for existence was to comply with the international commitments to which Flanders had subscribed. The holistic governance model is interpreted in a minimalist way, in the sense that maximal freedom is given to departments to take action on sustainable development as they see fit, while the prime minister only provides minimal coordination. As a result, the Team Sustainable Development engages very little in capacity building. This cautious approach is also visible within the working group, where the search for synergies between policy domains often comes down to each department's guarding against the encroachment of the team in its competences. As a sign of the symbolic nature of the policy, the government fails to respect its own deadlines. For instance, the proposals for the operational projects took years to complete and were only approved a few weeks before the 2009 elections; the SDS was renewed twenty-one months after the swearing-in of the new coalition, while the decree prescribed a ten-month deadline. The SDS carries little weight in Flemish politics, and does not extend beyond the margins of day-to-day policy making. In the discourse of the "Flanders in Action" strategy, mentions of "sustainability" are frequent, but no reference is made to the Flemish sustainable development policy, although the same prime minister leads both processes.
Patterns and conclusions
When the sustainable development policies of Quebec and Flanders are contrasted, several differences are observed. Many of those differences, however, are only marginal. For instance, an obvious distinction is that Flanders has assigned the coordinating responsibility for sustainable development to the prime minister, while Quebec opted for the more traditional option of delegating it to the environment minister. Yet the analysis suggests that the impact of that difference is smaller than what would be expected by normative debates (e.g., OECD 2007). The instruments that are designed under the auspices of both ministers bear many similarities, and the horizontal authority of the prime minister in Flanders (which distinguishes his position from a sectoral minister) is in practice not applied to the sustainable development policy. Other differences between the two policies are related to the thematic breadth of sustainable development and the selective choices that were made in that regard, such as the fact that the North-South dimension is marginalized in Quebec. If we look at other fundamental differences, the policy in Quebec displays stronger characteristics than the Flemish one, such as the strongly worded language and potential implications of the Act, the position of the commissioner as an independent evaluation instrument, and the broad approach taken within the public administration (encompassing all public organizations). Flanders, for its part, scores somewhat better in looking beyond the scope of its public administration, thanks to its introduction of transition management, but that is still limited.
Some of the differences between the two cases can be attributed to their different sociocultural situation. Quebec's particular position in North America and the important place of natural resources in its economy have a determining influence on the mindset underlying public policies. In the case of Flanders, its central position in Western Europe as a very small and densely populated, industrialized region pushes the government towards a cautious approach that prevents significant adjustments to socio-economic development patterns. Furthermore, the strength of Quebec's policy may be attributed to the commitment and leadership of Environment Minister Mulcair between 2003 and 2005. Mulcair, who was often characterized as the government's "green watchdog," showed personal leadership for the topic and could be considered as a policy entrepreneur. The exceptional nature of his commitment was further highlighted by the fact that he was discharged after conflicts over the government's environmental policy. In Flanders, in contrast, while some personal initiatives at the administrative level have been significant (such as the establishment of the working group), no policy entrepreneurship was found at the political level.
Quebec and Flanders pay lip service to the fact that sustainable development demands a fundamental change in all sectors of society, but de facto their policies do not live up to that challenge and avoid making real changes to existing practices
What is most striking in the comparison of the Quebec and Flemish cases is the similarity between the two in terms of their approaches and the policy instruments that they have designed. Both governments have interpreted sustainable development in a transversal way and created a broad policy approach with horizontal coordination instruments. That broad approach is facilitated by the fact that both Quebec and Flanders have a very high degree of policy making autonomy and the determination to employ their competences to the fullest. (8) In contrast to other subnational governments, their policies could indeed be characterized as quasinational, with a broad range of themes, a wide variety of instruments including a legal base, and even ambitions to be involved in international decision making. Both governments also resemble each other in their adoption of a minimalist interpretation of the holistic governance model. Symbolic politics are exhibited as Quebec and Flanders pay lip service to the fact that sustainable development demands a fundamental change in all sectors of society, but de facto their policies do not live up to that challenge and avoid making real changes to existing practices. They merely inform and stimulate others to take action on sustainable development, without ensuring that their actual behaviours change. Another similarity is the choice by both governments to focus first and foremost on internal measures within the public administration (although Flanders is trying to overcome that focus by means of experiments with transition management). The external relevance of their policies remains limited.
The eager response by Quebec and Flanders to global governance on sustainable development is explained by identity politics
In the two cases that were investigated, international governance has partially acted as a trigger and a shaping force for sustainable development policy. Both Quebec and Flanders were eager to show that their sustainable development policies answer the global call--addressed in first instance to UN member states--to issue national SDSs. They also used international policy documents to a certain extent to shape their policies. The eager response by Quebec and Flanders to global governance on sustainable development is explained by identity politics. Both cases have a strong territorial identity and are keen to display those identities on the international scene. They therefore adhere to the rules imposed by the international community in order to underscore their willingness to form part of that community. For the same identity-related reasons, Quebec and Flanders have taken a competitive stance vis-a-vis the sustainable development policies of the Canadian and Belgian federal governments, and want to surpass them. However, their willingness to comply with international guidelines actually favours symbolic politics, as it urges the governments to focus on cosmetic actions that look good in reports presented to international organizations, such as the adoption of laws or the issuance of strategies.
In conclusion, the leadership role proclaimed by Quebec and Flanders needs to be nuanced. Their sustainable development policies are clear examples of symbolic politics at work. The two SDSs rely primarily on recycled policy goals. The policies have low public visibility and their societal impact is doubtful, as they do not work towards fundamental changes. While Quebec's policy is accompanied by a large series of administrative requirements, both policies can confidently be characterized as mainly cosmetic. In other words, business as usual persists. That does not mean, however, that their sustainable development policies have no added value. The recent renewal of the SDS in Flanders, built around the concept of transition management, shows that small initiatives that were facilitated by the policy can grow and gain more significant support. In the area of sustainable development, leadership should not (only) be measured by the administrative integration of the concept. Institutional structures are important preconditions, but actions speak louder than words.
The reason for the symbolic character of the sustainable development policies is found in the political context of both regions. Despite the policy entrepreneurship manifested by Quebec's environment minister, Thomas Mulcair, there has been an overall lack of political will in both cases to move beyond the purely administrative framework of the policy and allow real changes in day-to-day policy making. Although the governments are eager to display their willingness to commit to the international sustainable development agenda, they lack the commitment to substantially invest in the fundamental changes that sustainable development requires. In that sense, the goal of the recent Rio+20 Summit to renew overall political commitment to sustainable development is more relevant than ever.
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(1) According to Hill and Wilson (2003: 2), identity politics refers to discourses and actions that use identity as a means to achieve political objectives. Inversely, actions driven by identity politics can have the effect of reinforcing one's identity. Paquin talks of identity paradiplomacy, "a paradiplomacy or a subnational foreign policy of which the fundamental objective is the reinforcement or the construction of the nation in the framework of a multinational country" (Paquin 2003: 622, own translation).
(2) The research is framed in a completed PhD project, which encompassed a broader comparative analysis of sustainable development policies at the subnational level (Happaerts 2011). The research involved a systematic comparative case study analysis of policy content, while paying attention to four explanatory factors of subnational sustainable development policies: international influence, degree of autonomy, political context and socioeconomic conditions. The analysis of the five cases (Quebec, Flanders, Wallonia, North Rhine-Westphalia and North Holland) followed a process-tracing method, reconstructing the governmental decisions and actions that led to the institutionalization of sustainable development, and tracing the different steps the government has taken to design its sustainable development policy. Only the main findings of the cases of Quebec and Flanders are summarized in this article. More information regarding the case selection and methodology can be obtained from the author.
(3) Between 1991 and 1993, Charest was environment minister at the federal level (for the Conservative party). At the Rio Summit, he had presented the Green Plan as Canada's approach to sustainable development (Tarasofsky 2007). The Green Plan was developed by his predecessor in 1990, in response to the Brundtland Report, and had the ambition of being the first comprehensive environmental policy plan in Canada. Although it was backed by significant financial resources, it was mostly aimed at information measures and was criticized for lacking substance (Hoberg and Harrison 1994; Gale 1997). After Rio, Charest launched his own Projet de societe, a multistakeholder partnership intended to transform the existing Green Plan into a proper Canadian SDS. The process failed after the disappearance of political momentum and because of organizational difficulties (Toner 2000; Tarasofsky 2007). As a reference to Charest's federal experience, Quebec's SDS was later surtitled Un projet de societe pour le Quebec.
(4) A good illustration is the Harper government's recent decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. In Quebec, in contrast, there bas always been unanimous support across all political parties for compliance with the Kyoto Protocol (Seguin and Chaloux 2011).
(5) The emphasis on culture, however, is eagerly promoted by the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), of which Quebec is an active member. In contrast to the conventional global interpretation of sustainable development, the OIF continuously advances cultural diversity as the fourth dimension of sustainable development (OIF 2012).
(6) During a side event at the Johannesburg Summit, twenty-three subnational governments and four transnational networks negotiated the Gauteng Declaration (named after the South African province of which Johannesburg is the capital). It was meant to show their commitment to sustainable development and denounce their lack of involvement in the multilateral discussions. The Gauteng Declaration laid the foundation for the Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development (nrg4SD), a transnational network that wants to represent subnational governments in multilateral decision making on sustainable development (Happaerts, Van den Brande and Bruyninckx 2010). As a founding member, Flanders has always been very active in nrg4SD. Quebec joined the network in 2010.
(7) After the example of Flanders, the Belgian federal government is now working on a long-term vision for its sustainable development policy.
(8) Based on the index on self-rule developed by Liesbet Hooghe, Gary Marks and Arjan Schakel (2008), which is a good indicator of the policy-making autonomy of subnational entities, Quebec scores slightly higher on two points. The first point is related to "policy scope" and refers to the fact that, although both have a broad and deep range of competences, Quebec also has authority over immigration. That explains the relative emphasis on immigration challenges within the theme "address demographic changes" of Quebec's SDS. Flanders also has a demographic theme in its SDS ("ageing society"), but it does not address immigration issues. The second point on which Flanders scores lower than Quebec is "fiscal autonomy," It is a difference that can potentially materialize in the sustainable development policies, but until now it bas not, because both governments chose only weak economic instruments for their policies.
The author is a senior research associate, Research Institute for Work and Society (HIVA), KU Leuven, Belgium. The research reflected in this article was partly funded by the Flemish Policy Research Centre for Sustainable Development (www.steunpuntDO.be). The author would also like to thank Corinne Gendron and the other professors and researchers of the Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development Research Chair, Universite du Quebec a Montreal, where he held a two-month visiting position in 2010.…
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Publication information: Article title: Sustainable Development in Quebec and Flanders: Institutionalizing Symbolic Politics?. Contributors: Happaerts, Sander - Author. Journal title: Canadian Public Administration. Volume: 55. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2012. Page number: 553+. © 2009 Institute of Public Administration of Canada. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.