Quebecâ€™s Model, Myths and Mood
In 1970, the French sociologist Michel Crozier wrote an academic treatise, La SocietÃ© BloquÃ©e, which went on to become a best seller. He was clearly on to something because a third edition of his book came out in 1999 arguing why the epithet still applies to France.
Last October, a new groupâ€”led by Lucien Bouchard under the awkward sobriquet of â€œPour un QuÃ©bec lucideâ€â€”issued a manifesto deploring the â€œsituation de blocageâ€ in contemporary Quebec. At a time when radical change is needed, a â€œkind of global refusal to change is hurting Quebec because it risks turning into a republic of the status quo, a fossil of the 20th century.â€
The manifesto led to a flood of comment and reaction. A counter-group, â€œPour un QuÃ©bec solidaireâ€ quickly issued its own manifesto. And for those who find that heavy reading, the blogosphere offers the delightful manifesto of â€œPour un QuÃ©bec morbideâ€.
These clashing manifestos contain important arguments, but they are interesting as well as a reflection of some current political cleavages and debate in Quebec. Their central issue is wealth creation versus wealth distribution and the question of federalism or independence is not even raised.
The one journalist who signed the â€œlucideâ€ manifesto is AndrÃ© Pratte, chief editorialist at La Presse. He and his colleague, Alain Dubuc, the papers leading columnist, share the best media bully pulpit in Quebec. Despite their opportunities to influence public opinion, frustrations has led each to lay out book length arguments on Quebecâ€™s myths, mood and model.
The books are complementary but very different. Paradoxically, it is Dubuc who has developed the â€œlucideâ€ economic manifesto into a book. Pratte is more overtly political in attacking the myths of the large, nationalist consensus in the province.
While Quebecâ€™s economy has significantly closed the gap with Ontario and has some real strengths, Dubuc shows that its wealth is near the bottom of jurisdictions in North America. He concludes that Quebecâ€™s economy is not a catastrophe, but is â€œsomewhere between mediocre and ordinaryâ€.
The problem is less past performance than future prospects. Quebec â€œis heading straight towards decline, a drop in it relative standard of living, which could become clear within five or ten yearsâ€. The greatest risk is the demographic shock which has specialists â€œdemonstrably terrifiedâ€. (Economist Pierre Fortin, a â€œlucideâ€ signatory, says Quebecâ€™s working age population will drop from 70% today to 40% in 2030, slowing growth and burdening the state.)
Furthermore, Quebec is poorer than other provinces, spends more and taxes more, and has an exceptionally high debt, which renders it vulnerable. (Refreshingly, Dubuc does not think the federal governmentâ€™s correcting the â€œfiscal imbalanceâ€ will do more than address the smaller part of the problem.)
Dubuc argues that Quebec is in many ways paralyzed when the status quo is no option. This paralysis reflects Quebeckersâ€™ ambivalence about wealth, loser complex, powerful unions, and politics aligned along constitutional lines. (He is especially scornful of how Bernard Landry made the PQ beholden to union interests.)
The Quebec model, â€œand the cult that inspires itâ€, is central. Hard to define and difficult to make the subject of calm, rational debate, he sees it as including a social doctrine, an economic strategy, a culture of governance and a quest for identityâ€”and goes on to up-end received wisdom on each. In particular, he finds the vaunted social model to be a variation on the Canadian model (and often indebted to â€œCanadian initiativesâ€), and neither especially effective nor generous.
His proposals include urgently addressing the fiscal challenge, creating a more competitive tax regime (more tilted to consumption taxes and less to personal and corporate income taxes) and to promoting the fundamental role of education and research (on both of which Quebec has some real strengths).
While sound, the more interesting parts of his argument address some sacred cows. High on the list is electricity where he argues that Quebec should introduce competitive market pricing and aggressively exploit the huge potential in Northern Quebec. Interestingly, in the federal-provincial debate on â€œfiscal imbalanceâ€ virtually no one outside Quebec has dared raise the sensitive issue of Quebecâ€™s non-market electricity rates, which deny the provincial government up to $8 billion a year.
Dubuc also takes on Quebecâ€™s obsession with job creation because increasingly the issue will be labour shortages and the quality of the labour force, not subsidizing jobs. An egregious example of the latter was the Gaspesia case, a hopeless paper mill into which Bernard Landry (a particular bÃªte noire of Dubucâ€™s) sunk hundreds of millions before Charest pulled the plug. He deplores the underfinancing of Quebecâ€™s universities, in part because of the untouchability of frozen tuition fees. And he sees the refusal to proceed with public-private financing of infrastructure as further evidence of Quebecâ€™s outmoded consensus. He underlines that Quebec must dramatically improve its productivity to offset declining labour force growth. The problem is that Quebeckers see â€œgreater productivityâ€ as code for squeezing more out of workers.
Dubuc calls for a debate on the priorities and approach of the provincial government (lâ€™Ã‰tat), which could lead to a second Quiet Revolution and a â€œmobilizing projectâ€ around wealth creation as a way to secure Quebecâ€™s identity and values in the 21st century.
AndrÃ© Pratte voted â€œyesâ€ in both referendums and placed himself for a long time in that large group of Quebeckers who are uneasy about the federation but lack a deep need to be citizens of an independent Quebec. His personal conversion came the night of the 1995 referendum, when he was revolted by Jacques Parizeauâ€™s blaming the defeat on â€œmoney and the ethnic votesâ€. The next day he wrote thankfully of Quebeckersâ€™ narrow escape from letting Parizeau and his clique construct a country â€œfor â€˜nousâ€™ and not the othersâ€. Even though Parizeau resigned and excuses were made, he and his thesis remain extraordinarily popular within the PQ.
Pratte starts with the tired, but fundamental, question: What does Quebec want? He fears that Quebeckersâ€”federalists as well as sovereignistsâ€”are so caught up in a martyr complex, while the rest of the country is so frustrated with past failures to accommodate Quebec, that we have a false and sterile debate. His answer is that â€œfirst and foremost, Quebeckers want to be recognizedâ€.
While the great failure in this regard was the defeat of Meech Lake, Pratte attacks the â€œmartyrâ€ complex by finding that both sides carry responsibility for the string of failures. In particular, he points out that it was Quebec which rejected the Fulton-Favreau formula for constitutional amendment and the Victoria Charter, which badly misplayed its hand during the constitutional round of 1981 (giving birth to the myth of the â€˜night of the long knivesâ€™) and which dismissed the Calgary declaration of 1997 when the other nine Premiers recognized â€œthe distinct character of Quebecâ€™s societyâ€ and the National Assemblyâ€™s role in protecting and promoting it.
Despite the constitutional failures, Pratte sees that Quebecâ€™s distinctiveness has been recognized implicitly in many ways and that specific demands for autonomy have usually resulted in agreements, including those on labour market training, immigration, the new national health council (where Quebec cooperates from outside), and parental leave. He also recognizes that Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world (tipping his hat to StÃ©phane Dionâ€™s arguments) and that the Quebec government has not been notably brilliant in executing some of its responsibilities.
â€œSo why do Quebeckers always seek and more power for their provincial government? Because that it how they express their demand for recognition.â€ However, full independence makes sense only as a means to an end and is not needed given that Quebec has been successfully transformed within the federation. He argues that the current PQ leadership has effectively dropped â€œassociationâ€, thus breaking with the positions of LÃ©vesque and Bouchard, and
that the supposed advantages of independence are unrealistic and risky: it is a â€œblack holeâ€.
He is impatient too with many federalists, especially those who vaunt a Canada of perfect harmony, tolerance, prosperity and liberty. He accepts that Canada is exceptionally prosperous and peaceful, but â€œfor Quebeckers, even many federalists, it is also the country which has always refused to formally recognize their distinctiveness, and which has long shown mistrust towards them and resisted their slightest steps forwardâ€. The Canada that many federalists describe is not recognizable and therefore has not seduced Quebeckers.
This brings him back to the constitutional impasse. It matters because a country is more than prosperity and governmental programs: it must rest on a common vision. â€œA constitutionâ€™s function is to entrench this shared vision.â€ While attracted to British political theorist Michael Foleyâ€™s view that constitutions are made up not just of written principles and unwritten conventions but also of â€œconstitutional abeyancesâ€â€”unresolved issues that are too intractable or dangerous to bring to a written resolutionâ€”he still concludes that Quebec will always be tempted by separation without formal recognition of its distinctiveness.
He is discouraged by the federalist defense of Canada. While the debate around the Clarity Act was â€œnot uselessâ€, he believes the Plan B was essentially a failure and very marginal. He deplores the silence of federalists on the ground in Quebec, while the sovereignists are active, especially in cultivating the young at cÃ©geps and universities. A new federalist culture is required that recognizes sovereignist ideology is deeply anchored in Quebec, and that re-engages in true debate. The fact that prospect of Quebecâ€™s needed constitutional recognition, makes it more imperative to have a dialogue based on the â€œrealâ€ Canada. The new federalist strategy must be based on the basic premise that the unity of Canada can never be taken for granted.
His â€œrealâ€ country is the opposite of the bleak sovereignist vision of French in peril, a rigid federalism, and a Quebec subject to the will of others. It is also one where federalism is a â€œgood ideaâ€ for reconciling diverse groups, accommodating plural identities, enriching democratic life and providing better service to citizens. (A good idea in need of rescue: only 33% of Quebeckers call themselves â€œfederalistâ€, while 75% are proud to be Canadian.) Canadaâ€™s federalism also includes a degree of asymmetry, which Pratte endorses.
These two books are both important contributions to the debate in Quebec. The authors wrote them in frustration with the powerful consensus which stands in the way of the policies they advocate, but also with those who should be stronger allies. The Charest government has not lived up to many of its promises to reinvent the Quebec model. And the federalist camp has been distinguished by scandal, silence and drift, with a lack of energy and leadership.
Both books wobble on their prescriptions, though Dubucâ€™s less, because he has well argued views on a many specific policies. His weakness is in the idea of wealth creation as the rallying cry for a second Quiet Revolution. He well recognizes that wealth cannot be an end in itself, but his formulation of a â€œmobilizing projectâ€ around wealth creation is crasser than his sophisticated argument merits perhaps because of glossing over legitimate political differences. He also neglects the tendency in our globalized economy towards growing disparities in wealth and has remarkably little to say (though mostly positive) about the role of federal policy in shaping Quebecâ€™s economy.
Pratte has made a long voyage from his two â€œyesâ€ votes to his definitive defense of federalism. His emphasis on the â€œrealâ€ country is welcome because any federalist strategy must count on the real nature of Canada being known. Unfortunately, he scarcely touches on the nature and drivers of Quebeckersâ€™ identity patterns as â€œCanadianâ€ or â€œQuebeckerâ€ in varying degrees. Identity is a key predictor of a voterâ€™s position on the constitutional question and understanding the experiential and societal forces behind it merits close examination in the development of any strategy. He rightly underlines the symbolic importance of the constitution, but is he right to put so much emphasis on constitutional â€œrecognitionâ€ as such? Surely the central issue is that the government, National Assembly or population have never endorsed the or a reformed constitution, which symbolically for many puts Quebec â€œoutsideâ€ the constitution. Pratte seems to suggest that just getting the right words of recognition into the constitution would do the trick. In practice, Quebecâ€™s political class is likely to want much more than words of recognition. A constitutional settlement may be required to limit the countryâ€™s vulnerability to a wave of separatist sentiment, but no one can see how to get there.
Pratte acknowledges this, so he wants a dialogue on the â€œrealâ€ country in the meantime. It would be welcome to see the facts and arguments he has put forward find their proper place in Quebecâ€™s dialogue, but the organized federalist political forces are sadly weakened for now.
Even if Canada avoids another constitutional crisis, Quebecâ€™s quandary is important for the whole country. The province could become a drag on Canadaâ€™s performance and require further transfers because of its age imbalance between the working and non-working populations. Of course, some other provinces, especially in the Atlantic, face similar challenges.
This goes to the â€œlucideâ€ phenomenon. Polls suggest Lucien Bouchard is still by far the Quebecâ€™s most popular politician. He and other credible voices in the province are prepared to work to change the provincial debate away from the stale constitutional impasse to more material challenges. The â€œlucideâ€ group has made addressing these issues central and deliberately separated them from the question of independence. The surprising success of the federal Tories in becoming a real option in Quebec has also shifted the ground and put the
sovereignists on the defensive. Finally, Quebecâ€™s left has split off and formed its own political party, QuÃ©bec Solidaire, which will sap support from the PQ.
In other words, Quebec is showing some interesting fluidity for a â€œsociÃ©tÃ© bloquÃ©eâ€. It will need it.