Ending tuition freeze would be a gift to the PQ

Liberals risk mobilizing students to work for opposition parties

Université - démocratisation, gouvernance et financement

Decisions are made by those who show up. And Quebec elections are decided by whether Parti Quebecois voters can be bothered going to the polls.
Of the last four elections, the PQ won the two in which it received more than 1.7 million votes provincewide, and lost to the Liberals the two in which it got fewer than 1.4 million. In all four elections, the Liberals received about 1.7 million votes.
So you can see the importance to the PQ of motivating its supporters to vote, and having an organization to identify them and get them to the polls. And enthusiastic support from the PQ's traditional allies in the labour unions could be crucial.
Labour leaders aren't happy with PQ leader Andre Boisclair's intention to take the party to the right, closer to business and not so chummy with the unions. And they're also aware that the PQ needs the unions' enthusiastic support at election time. This gives them leverage to apply to extract concessions from a future PQ government, and they're using it.
Henri Masse, the pragmatic president of the province's most important labour organization, the FTQ, has said publicly on more than one occasion recently that members of his organization have "less enthusiasm" for the PQ under Boisclair than in the past.
Masse has also said the FTQ, which has officially supported the PQ in the past, will wait and see what's in the party's official platform and decide once the election is called what to do.
And yesterday, Arthur Sandborn, a candidate for the new left-wing Quebec solidaire party, said he expects to receive the endorsement next week of the FTQ's Montreal metropolitan council for himself and another QS candidate, Andre Frappier.
It's doubtful that the Montreal council's executive would propose the endorsement against the wishes of the FTQ's provincewide leadership. So the endorsement of the two QS candidates could be a warning to the PQ.
But if Boisclair is having trouble rallying traditional allies in one area, he might be about to get some unwitting help from the Liberals to mobilize new supporters in another.
Premier Jean Charest is toying with the idea of calling an election for as early as March 26. That would head off any attempt to replace Boisclair as PQ leader and catch Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec party unprepared.
But in late March, many of the "snowbirds," retirees who winter in the south and who tend to be Liberal supporters, haven't migrated back north yet. They can still vote by mail, but the Liberals would have to make a special effort to track them down and get them registered by the deadline 19 days before the election. And they wouldn't be available as campaign volunteers.
Also in late March, CEGEP and university students are still gathered on campus and not yet cramming for year-end exams, making them easier to reach. In such ridings as Louis-Hebert, where Universite Laval's residences are located, the student vote could make the difference.
Students tend to sympathize with the PQ but, unlike the Liberals' elderly supporters, don't bother voting. Boisclair based his successful campaign for the leadership on his appeal to youth. And the Liberals might be about to give students the motivation they need to overcome their usual political apathy.
On Feb. 17, the Liberals will hold a meeting of their expanded general council to adopt their election platform. And one issue they'll have to face is whether to extend the current freeze on university tuition, which the Liberals have promised to maintain only until the end of their current term.
Boisclair has already said he would maintain the freeze. But the universities say they need to be allowed to raise fees to narrow the funding gap between themselves and institutions in other provinces.
And the Liberal youth wing, which will have a third of the voting delegates at the platform meeting, has called for the freeze to be lifted, provided that bursaries for less affluent students are also increased.
Two years ago, students were mobilized to protest by the Charest government's attempt to cut bursaries. Lifting the freeze might have the same effect at election time.

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