Standing in the Shadows of Mario: Quebec between Fear and Doubt

Article excerpt

It is said that provincial governments are not defeated so much as they run out of steam, and, as the ruling Parti Quebecois government moves into its ninth year in office, it looks ripe for replacement. The Business community is rubbing its bands, since it backs the only competitive alternatives. The Left is in an ambivalent position, caught between its critique of the PQ and its fear of what comes next.

The Limits of 1990s Social Democracy

The PQ has been arguably the most successful of the provincial social-democratic governments elected in the 1990s. Compared to the meltdowns in Ontario and B.C., and the Blairist turn in Saskatchewan, the PQ can boast a senes of reforms that have improved the lives of working-class Quebecers. Most significant is a family policy including a non-profit, five-dollar-a-day universal daycare program and expanded parental leave -- but there have also been initiatives in social housing and improvements in the employment-standards legislation, including bringing domestic workers under the minimum-wage laws.

Despite its successes, the PQ offered a 1 990s social democracy consistently bowing before the imperatives of capital. After a decade in office, they have not moved towards the imperative of ecological susrainability. Fundamental decisions about investment and employment remain firmly in private hands, and minor attempts to support local economic development have led more to bureaucratized local development centres than to the democratization of investment. Despite the mass protests in Quebec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in April, 2001, the PQ remains fundamentally attached to continental free trade, although it now couches its support within "an equitable and socially responsible globalization." Meanwhile, its social-policy innovations are a band aid covering severe cuts to social assistance, health and community services made in the 1997 and 1998 budgets.

Without denying the PQ's accomplishments, the Quebec Left has few reasons to rally to the defence of a party without transformative ambitions. The PQ's raison d'etre remains sovereignty, yet it has stalled the nationalist movement for seven years with its constant waffles on this front. Its progressive legislation seeks to reinforce its hold on the nationalist Left rather than challenge capital's place in society. And the strategy of strengthening ties with the United States as a means of increasing Quebec's independence from Canada is a clear political loser, given recent American imperial ambitions. Indeed, public opinion in Quebec has shifted from being more sympathetic to the United States than English Canada during the 1990s to being much more critical of U.S. foreign policy in the past two years.

ADQ Waiting in the Wings

Nevertheless, the fall of the PQ government promises catastrophe for the Quebec Left. In this scenario, Action Democratique leader Mario Dumont will play the role of Mike Harris or Gordon Campbell, albeit with a youthful flair. The ADQ's platform steals the kitschiest economic policies from the Fraser Institute (and its new sister, the Institut economique de Montreal): a flat tax, school vouchers and cuts to government agencies like the Human Rights Commission. The ADQ's rise has spurred journalistic debates over the size of the Quebec state, with opinion tending strongly towards downsizing the public service and pruning its programs. A number of PQ cabinet ministers have in turn urged the government to adopt this approach.

The consensus-based nature of Quebec politics has limited the ADQ's ambitions in key areas already staked out by the community movement -- for example, the new anti-poverty legislation and increased independent funding for community groups. While not greatly constraining the ADQ, the minor concessions made in these areas serve to make the ADQ seem less threatening.

The ADQ topped the polls last summer after winning three of four June by-elections, but was, by early 2003, in a dead heat with the Liberals and the PQ. …