In response to opposition from many sectors of the population to his project of “re-engineering” (i.e. dismantling) the state, Jean Charest’s ultra-conservative government is changing its tune. It is now wrapping its neoliberal policies in talk about sustainable development, imitating an approach mastered by the previous PQ government. It is therefore not surprising that the only real opposition is extra-parliamentary.
An Abuse of Terms
Charest’s new bill aims to integrate a limited right to “a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature” into all the government’s legislation; establish a Sustainable Development Commissioner, who would report to the Auditor General; and create a “green fund” based on a green tax, public and private contributions, as well as fines and other fees.
According to Le Devoir columnist Louis-Gilles Francœur, this is a “strongly watered down” version of the Brundtland Commission’s conception of sustainable development. For example: - The government only commits to “take into consideration ecosystem’s absorptive capacity insofar as it does not affect economic efficiency” - The activities targeted by this pseudo-sustainable development policy are purely governmental and do not include the activities of the private sector - The right to a healthy environment is already included in the Québec Law of the Environment, and this right is already limited by the legalization of polluting waste and other similar standards and authorizations - The Sustainable Development Commissioner, if in fact able to act independently, would have very few activities within his or her jurisdiction
The creation of a green fund is the real good news in this bill, since it would, at least in part, compensate for the chronic under-funding the Ministry of the Environment has suffered for the last 10 years. Neoliberal Paradoxes and Mirages
The Parti Québécois got us used to a style of government that said one thing and did another. Remember Minister Boisclair’s water policy, or the law against poverty and social exclusion, unanimously adopted near the end of the PQ’s reign in December, 2002? These were true examples of pseudo-progressive “nice intentions,” but without concrete measures or regulations that would have permitted their implementation. At least, some of us said at the beginning of the Liberal mandate, this government doesn’t hide its intentions. But after 18 months of social tension that followed the election, after being constrained by public pressure to renounce the Suroît natural gas-based power plant – one of the rare dossiers on which the the Liberals have so far had to backtrack – and faced with surveys reporting a lower-than-ever popularity (less than 30 per cent) – the government has opted for mystification and has imitated its predecessor by pretending to have turned 180 degrees on environmental issues.
We can already predict the results of the sustainable development strategy of the Charest government; we just have to look at the action plan for the law against poverty and social exclusion! This action plan, published April 2, 2004 – as well as Bill 57, of June, 2004, consisting of reforms to “aid to individuals and families” (i.e. welfare) and the Bill to change the anti-poverty law submitted in September, 2004 – introduces several measures that go directly against the lovely principles declared in the law. Legal action is planned by social-rights groups to force the government to respect its own law on two or three points where it seems there may be some possible of having an impact.
At this time, as social movements are mobilizing against these measures, Jean Charest pulls a new bill out of his hat that pretends to promote sustainable development as a diversion. The latest details to come out are that the government is giving itself three years for this bill to get through all the various stages of adoption by the National Assembly, and will then permit the Minister at least a year to produce a plan of action. This brings us beyond the next election, in which sustainable development may well be an issue. This is the same story as what the PQ did with the anti-poverty law. It is like the issue of electoral reform, which Charest promised within the “first year of our first mandate [sic]” and which his government delays and delays in order to render reform impossible before the next mandate.
The Real Opposition Is in the Street
How can the PQ’s parliamentary opposition be anything other than muted before a government that is implementing policies first proposed by the PQ and is applying the same mystifying approach that worked so well for the PQ in the past? Today’s only real opposition is in the streets – and in the increasing unity of the Left that can be observed in the first joint communiqué between the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), Option citoyenne (OC) and the Trade Unionists and Progressives for a Free Quebec (SPQ Libre), entitled “Quebec Is Not for Sale,” denouncing the general policy of privatization that the government has abusively named Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).
–Translated by Jill Hanley
This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .