A year after its election, the ultra-conservative government of Jean Charest is facing a level of unpopularity proportionate to the arrogance and insensitivity it has demonstrated through its dismantling of the Québécois state. In an effort to spruce up its image, the Charest government is undergoing a vast cosmetic operation to explain its policies to people through regional forums. Faced with such a masquerade, general mobilization in the streets remains the most appropriate way for people to make themselves heard. Why go and sit in front of Charest’s ministers, who will only pretend to listen to us?
It is important to understand that the Charest government proceeded unilaterally in its decision to dismantle the Québec state, without consultation or discussion with social actors. The decisions have already been made by the closed circle of the cabinet ministers and friends of the government (the Québec Chamber of Commerce and private firms). With all the subtlety for which he is known, Premier Charest revealed his true intentions when he announced these discussion forums for citizens: He wants to get closer to the people to make them accept policies he has no intention of changing. “Listen. We’re not slowing down. We’re not changing anything,” said Mr. Charest at a recent press conference.
We know that forums are normally supposed to allow the expression of the greatest possible range of points of view with the aim of examining all aspects of a problem in order to come up with ideas for action. These ideas will eventually be turned into priorities for action, programs or policies. It is clear, however, that the method chosen by Premier Charest is not destined to serve democracy. Worse still, the government is using a method that is often demanded by social actors, not in order to help social actors participate in a democratic process, but rather to make people swallow the policies they so massively reject.
To add to the confusion, the “discussions” on identified themes (health and social services, education, training and employment, social, economic, regional and sustainable development) will only be conducted under the lens of demographic and public-finance issues. So, there is no way that people will be able to discuss Charest’s “re-engineering of the state,” or the labour-standards changes at the heart of recent policy changes. As well, the organization of these forums has been delegated to the newly established Regional Conferences of Elected Officials, which are currently embroiled in the municipal de-merger debates. To top it all off, the participants of these forums will be selected at random by a firm that manages the provincial lottery draws! The government is trying to avoid having to face the wrath of the unions and social movements that have been denouncing their policies.
Meanwhile, the policy decisions are already being implemented.
As an example of decisions already made, we only have to note that the neoliberal garage sale is underway; the government is getting ready to hand over to its friends nearly $900 million of public assets. This is without a doubt only the tip of the iceberg. We already know that private firms have been hired by the Treasury Council in order to identify state activities that can be privatized. We know that these same firms can themselves submit offers to provide privatized services. Not long ago we learned from the newspaper Le Devoir that these same firms are demanding that the government assume the costs of preparing such submissions. Perhaps Ms. Jérôme-Forget, the minister responsible, had not yet thought of it herself! Her high sense of ethics will no doubt be put to use in the response she is preparing for them.
The Quebec Federation of Labour is not falling for this ruse – let’s hope other popular groups and unions won’t either. The Federation announced that it would participate only in “consultation in which unions can express their point of view and be duly heard by elected representatives.” But nothing about these regional forums could be less certain.
We mustn’t forget that, despite appearances, this government is weak (less than 30-per-cent support). In this context, rather than contributing to help build its credibility, a broad popular front is being constructed. Most union federations and popular organizations are seeking mandates for a 24-hour general strike in the spring. We have to express our opposition in the streets if we want to have a real influence on this anti-social government, not within the empty boxes of these forums that seem so strangely prefabricated and recycled.
This article appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .