I had to balance my agenda this past weekend (May 3-5) between two events: the congress of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, held here in Ottawa; and the Ninth Congress of Québec Solidaire, held at the University of Quebec in Montréal (UQAM).
The following are some notes on the latter event, which I was able to attend on the final day, Sunday, when some important decisions were made by the more than 600 delegates. This was the largest congress to date for this party, founded in 2006, which doubled its membership to 14,000 during the past year in the wake of the student upsurge. My account is supplemented by some additional details on the proceedings of the previous two days provided by QS delegate Marc Bonhomme and media reports.
A major objective of the congress was to update and supplement the party’s platform in the 2012 Quebec election, in anticipation of another election expected within the next year or so, as the Parti Québécois government lacks a majority in the National Assembly.The congress also had to update the party’s financial structure to correspond to new party-finance legislation; elect a new president of the party; launch the next phase in the party’s process of adopting a program; and draw a balance-sheet on its experience in attempts to negotiate electoral alliances with other pro-independence political parties.
‘Credibility’ and pipelines
Heading into the congress, party leader Françoise David told the media that QS had to ensure its platform in the next election featured “credible” economic proposals — code for moderate measures that do not offer a perspective of going beyond capitalism. She repeated this message in her opening remarks to the congress. David and her fellow QS MNA Amir Khadir then followed up with a news conference featuring the party’s Green Plan, unveiled in the 2012 election, which won plaudits from environmental activists but was consistent with a “green capitalist” orientation — even though the Green Plan was not on the congress agenda!
The congress did in fact effect a minor re-orientation, although not necessarily along the lines David was proposing. It approved stronger measures to counter tax evasion; greater support for French-language training and integration of non-Francophone immigrants; increased access to government information including establishment of a national (Quebec) public high-speed digital network; secondary and tertiary transformation of resources by “local enterprises…making government assistance conditional on compliance with social responsibility and tight environmental criteria within a perspective of transition to promote self-managed and socialized enterprises”; improvements in teachers’ working conditions and democratization of the universities; increased support to the homeless and increased independent monitoring and control of the police including, of course, repeal of repressive legal constraints on demonstrations. (Québec solidaire already agitates for dropping the thousands of charges laid against demonstrators during the past year.)
The congress also agreed to launch an ecology campaign later this year. It will focus on a number of themes including the need for the construction of mass public transit facilities, which would gradually move toward providing transit free of charge to users. And in the debate on the party’s definition of its political objective in the forthcoming election, the delegates voted that QS present itself “as a party prepared to govern, defending the common good [bien commun], and the only alternative to neoliberal policies.” A proposal to define the platform as “reasonable” (code for “credible”) was rejected. A nuance, but signifying unease with David’s formulation, some delegates told me.
An emergency resolution, adopted in the closing moments of the congress without much debate, calls on the party to “support citizens’ efforts to have an extensive and open debate on Quebec’s pipeline projects.” This refers mainly to various proposals, unopposed by the PQ government and the other parties, to bring tar sands products into and through Quebec. These projects, strongly opposed by Quebec environmentalists, have not been addressed so far by the QS members of the National Assembly. Furthermore, some of their recent statements have left the door open to support of oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — although the QS Green Plan opposed this development and called for “an exit from petroleum” for Quebec.
New QS president favours ‘a party of the streets’
Four candidates contested the election of party president, to be co-spokesperson with Françoise David. (Under the male-female parity rule in the QS statutes, the party president now had to be a male.) The candidates’ platforms, which were debated in the weeks leading up to the congress, reflected somewhat distinct views on how each conceived the party’s course in the immediate future. Delegates elected Andrés Fontecilla on the first ballot, which means he got more than half the votes (the actual count was not disclosed). Fontecilla had campaigned on a relatively left platform that emphasized the need for the party to avoid parliamentary opportunism and give greater emphasis to its extra-parliamentary and extra-electoral activity as a “party of the streets” as well as the ballot-boxes.
Fontecilla is of Chilean origin. He came to Quebec while still in his early teens, his family fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship. A self-professed “child of Law 101,” like other immigrant children after the mid-1970s required to attend French public schools, he is a fluent orator with just a trace of a Castilian accent in his speech. A well-known social activist, with a background in the student movement and Latin American solidarity, Andrés won 24% of the popular vote as QS candidate in Laurier-Dorion, a multi-ethnic riding in downtown Montréal, in the last election. He summarized his approach in a pre-congress article (my translation from the French):
“…the parliamentary struggle and the electoral activity it involves are but one aspect of the equation. They must be complemented by the mobilization of broad social sectors and by the development of an organizational culture within the party….
“Our party aims, ultimately, to ‘go beyond capitalism.’ Although Québec Solidaire has not fully defined this concept, our project implies some fundamental transformations in our economic and political system with a view to achieving greater redistribution of our collective wealth and a deepening of our democracy.
“This ambitious program cannot be adapted to shortcuts aimed at obtaining more seats in the National Assembly. Our election victories must therefore count on a thoroughly deliberate support from an electorate that desires not only to get rid of a government at the end of the race but to build another, radically different Quebec.
“The best guarantee of development of our program is found in its radicalness and originality. These orientations reduce the possibilities for electoral alliances with other parties, but they enable us to stay the course. In the middle and longer term this will pay off since the electorate will see clearly that our proposals are not diluted in an exclusive search for more deputies.”
In his victory speech at the congress, Fontecilla (who addressed the delegates as “comrades,” a term not often heard in QS), pointedly emphasized the importance of joining in the struggle against petroleum development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the various pipeline projects.
No electoral agreements with the neoliberal parties
A QS congress in March 2011 had debated and rejected proposals from party leaders David and Khadir, among others, that the party try to negotiate “tactical” electoral agreements with the PQ or the Greens (Verts) that would have each party refrain from running candidates against the others in selected ridings, and thus facilitate the election of QS MNAs. The issue arose again in December 2012, when the QS National Council mandated the party’s National Coordinating Committee (the party executive) to probe the possibilities for political and even organizational rapprochement with Option Nationale (ON), a new independentist party originating in a 2011 split from the PQ. By then it was already evident that an agreement with the PQ was a pipedream, and in any event the current PQ government’s right-wing drift was already alienating even large sections of its base.
This congress received a report on the overture to the ON, based on three formal meetings between ON leaders and a QS delegation that included Françoise David, and the attendance of two QS leaders at the recent ON congress. The report concluded that “it would appear premature… to end the discussions,” while conceding that an electoral agreement for the next election seemed to be ruled out. It found that while the two parties might agree on sovereignty, electoral reform, free post-secondary education and a few other issues, ON “is not a party that will fight social injustice” and is indifferent or hostile to feminism. And its independentism is essentially a remake of the PQ’s “neither left nor right” version — that is, the neoliberal status quo.
After a general debate on electoral alliances the QS congress delegates voted by a substantial majority to reject any alliance with another political party while remaining “open to any common action and collaboration with any group that concurs with our platform.”
Greater dependence on state funding
The debate on party finances was imposed by two problems.
On the one hand, the QS national office and structures are heavily indebted from expenses incurred during the last three election campaigns, although the local riding associations are mostly debt-free. The QS National Council in December decided that two-thirds of the state election expenses rebate would henceforth go to the national office, the remaining one-third to the local associations. It also established a committee to look at longer-term solutions and report to this convention.
On the other hand, the new PQ government’s election financing reforms — ostensibly motivated by the recent revelations of massive corruption resulting from under-the-table payments to the big-business parties under assumed names and straw men, in circumvention of legislated limits on corporate political contributions — have (inter alia) limited per capita voter contributions to parties to $100 a year and abolished the tax credit. But they raise state subsidies to recognized parties to $1.50 per voter from the previous 87 cents, while making further state funding contingent on how much a party receives in voter contributions, the amounts per voter increasing the more contributions the party receives.
The combined effect of these legislated reforms is to make the party much more dependent on state funding and its electoral results. This will inevitably reinforce pressures on the party to adapt its policies, actions and election platforms to whatever it deems most acceptable to the broadest layers of its potential electorate.
I won’t go into detail on the specific proposals debated and adopted at this congress, in part because I was not present at the debate. However, I am told the committee’s proposals were largely accepted, although many local associations understandably complained that the greater centralization of finances in the national office would restrict their already-limited autonomy at fund-raising efforts. And it will require closer membership scrutiny of spending decisions by the national leadership, which has already displayed its penchant for mass media exposure, often at the expense of political clarity.
Debate opens on feminism, family and sexual diversity
This convention also launched the party debate on the fourth stage of debating and adopting a more comprehensive program for the party. This stage will be devoted to developing the party’s underlying approach and proposals on feminism and issues related to it, including the situation of women in the party and the continued implementation of parity representation of men and women at all levels of Québec Solidaire. Like the previous stages of the program adoption, party members will be encouraged to involve non-party activists in the debate.
The participation notebook for this phase — labelled “For a Feminist Society of Solidarity: Women, Families, Sexual and Gender Diversity” — was introduced at this congress, in a discussion held mid-way through the proceedings. In coming weeks and months, further materials will be circulated, an educational camp will be held, and then proposals from the ranks will be presented for debate, following which (in May 2014) a congress will be held to adopt a program.
Any observer of Québec Solidaire will be impressed by the strong presence of women in party structures and debates and other activities. For example, QS is the first party in North America to present a full slate of candidates in recent elections that was 50% or more composed of women. This is a unique feature of the party, and a major factor in its success so far in establishing a solid presence in Quebec’s political landscape. It contrasts very favourably with the dismal record of so many “left of the left” parties of the past, mainly of Stalinist orientation but including more than a few of Trotskyist or related origins. The UK Socialist Workers Party is only the latest of these ersatz “Leninist” parties to suffer ignominy over the arbitrary and authoritarian actions of its male-dominated leadership.
Some of Quebec’s relatively large Maoist (“Marxist-Leninist”) parties of the 1970s imploded in the early 1980s in part as a result of a belated feminist challenge among their membership, and a fair number of QS leaders learned from that experience — not least Françoise David herself, who went on to become a leader of the Quebec Women’s Federation and initiator of the March for Bread and Roses and later the World March of Women before participating in the foundation of Québec Solidaire. But, as many QS women will tell you, there are still some major challenges to be met in educating the party as a whole on the question of feminism and women’s liberation. This promises to be a rich debate.