Friday, June 06, 2003
When the new Liberal government opened its first question period yesterday, Premier Jean Charest drew a line in the sand. Looking Bernard Landry, leader of the opposition, straight in the eye, he said: "Quebecers wanted change. They will get change." And he means business.
Figuring he can afford to spend political capital early in his first mandate, it's a safe bet that Charest will try to implement this change - what he calls the re-engineering of the state - regardless of the strong opposition that's sure to come from unions and social groups galore. With the protests he'll face in coming months, the Charest era could go down in history as the not-so-quiet revolution.
On Wednesday, the premier gave his inaugural address. Commentators and opposition parties duly noted that it faithfully reflected the election platform of the Liberal Party. The problem is that this platform mirrors the neoconservative vision of Charest, not the more liberal outlook of Jean Lesage, Claude Ryan and Robert Bourassa.
Charest's vision is one where the state and the citizen are seen as separate, almost opposite from one another. It's a vision that runs counter to the one that emanated from the Quiet Revolution, where the state became the ultimate tool with which Quebecers have tried to strengthen their collective political, cultural and economic power.
But that was then, and this is now. Sacred cows are out. In his inaugural speech, the premier laid out a five-year plan - no relation to the Soviet type, of course. While Charest refuses to be labeled "right wing," one didn't have to be Karl Marx to hear his list of classic, neoconservative themes: more entrepreneurship, an increased role for the private sector in the delivery of public services, the primacy of individual rights, reduced taxes, more responsibility for the individual and so on.
Even the resemblance between Charest's address and the election platform of Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec was dizzying. The ADQ's platform mentions unleashing entrepreneurship, reducing regulations, subsidies and taxes, adding the contribution of the private sector to the health-care system and what it calls a "responsibility-based patriotism."
Truth be told, Charest's approach, except for its intended speed and far-reaching range of action, is also a reminder of Lucien Bouchard's own neoconservative vision. When he became premier in 1996, an internal document that outlined the makeup and philosophy of his government talked about "reducing the bureaucratic weight" of the state and "creating a more competitive fiscal environment" to better accompany the business sector in the creation of jobs, etc. That's the philosophy that opened the door to the famed zero-deficit policy, drastic budget cuts across the board, the closing of nine hospitals and a small army of nurses and doctors who were put out to pasture prematurely. If memory serves correctly, Bouchard had himself done quite a bit of "re-engineering" and "deconstruction" of the state. Charest will simply push this vision further and faster.
And Charest is no less an accidental neoconservative than he is an accidental federalist. That's why his inaugural speech contained a small surprise: the introduction of elements of proportional representation as soon as 2004. In fact, for the Liberal Party, this is the right moment in history to make that move. The Parti Québécois's traditional electoral base has never been more fragile. Not only did the PQ garner its lowest popular vote in 30 years - a mere 33 per cent - it also has become vulnerable to the possible creation of new, smaller political parties, be they more left wing, right wing or more clearly sovereignist.
Even small changes to the electoral system could encourage this tendency that is mostly the product of Bouchard's policies that gave way to the slow demobilization of the larger sovereignist movement, both within and outside the PQ. It is no coincidence that the loudest calls for proportional representation emanate mostly from sovereignist circles that can no longer identify with the PQ of today. And should Charest strike early, he gets an added bonus as new parties could be formed before more anger toward his government mounts and provokes even the most dissatisfied of sovereignists to close ranks behind the PQ.
Mostly, if Charest's promise is implemented, it will leave many sovereignists stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either they'll keep splitting between those who no longer go out to vote and those who'll keep supporting the PQ even though it's become a classic party of governance that refuses to commit clearly to achieving sovereignty. Or they'll create new parties that will take years to get off the ground.
In either scenario, Jean Charest and the Liberal Party have little to worry about for some time to come. They can keep re-engineering the state of Quebec until the sacred cows come home.
Sacred cows are out
Jean Charest's address reflects his neoconservative views, not the Lesage vision that sparked the Quiet Revolution
Friday, June 06, 2003