A Referendum on Austerity? (Le Journal de Montréal)

By Josée Legault
Originally published on January 6, 2015
See original French text here: http://www.journaldemontreal.com/2015/01/06/un-referendum-sur-lausterite 

This past Tuesday, my colleague André Pratte at La Presse proposed to the Couillard government that they should hold a referendum on his “plan to redress public finances”. In effect, a referendum on austerity. 

This referendum, according to Mr. Pratte, would serve to “nip in the bud mobilisation” against austerity that has been announced my unions, among others. It is also a question, he adds with a hint of irony, to give back “voice to the silent majority, the Québécois who use pots and pans [casseroles] to cook with.”

It is evident that – and I say this with full respect for my colleague – a substantial portion of québécois elites never fully recovered from the student strike of the spring of 2012. This very same social movement of dissent that the prestigious British daily newspaper The Guardian had described as the most powerful symbol of the calling into question of neoliberalism in North America.

Which is where their worries about seeing Québécois “streets” inflate with protesters once again come from. Even though in democracies – including ours – the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental right.

Let us also recall the pearl of an economist Claude Montmarquette – also known for his favourable judgement towards a state that is as inactive as possible, and co-author, among others, of a “study” commissioned last year by Mr. Couillard’s transition committee.

In presenting said study, Mr. Montmarguette made evident the new government’s fear of seeing the “street” fill itself up again in throwing out nothing less than this:

“You do not go into the street and you simply accept the modifications that must be made[…] The social acceptability of a program of reforms is also fundamental. It is useless to ask politicians to do what people refuse to accept – if we find people in the street protesting essentially about everything and nothing.”

As a reductive vision of citizens’ freedom of expression, this is a bit over the top.

Since 2012, one must in fact admit that the “street”, as we call it, is causing elites more and more anxiety. As if demonstrating was not a fundamental right. As if Québec had not also already known its own huge demonstrations well before the student spring.

This new fear of the “street”, even when it is peaceful, is a stunning socio-political phenomenon that future historians will surely pay much attention to… At least, let us hope so.

***

What do you think of my sweet “silent majority”?

As for the idea of a referendum to give the podium back to the mythical “silent majority” – remember, an expression that Jean Charest also used during that very same student strike – its principal weakness is that the right moment and the right mechanism in democracies to validate a governance program – i.e., to ask for an explicit mandate — is called a general election.

In the current case that we are interested in, the last election is very recent. It only goes back to April 2014. If the Liberal Party wanted to redefine not only the size, but also the role of the State as it seems determined to do, it should have asked the population for that mandate. But this was not the case.

Like others before him, Mr. Pratte reminds us that “the three principal political parties announced, in their electoral platforms, the rapid return to a budgetary equilibrium (2015-2016 for the PQ and PLQ and 2014-2015 for the CAQ). These three parties received 90% of the vote.” Indeed. This nevertheless does not include the argument in favour of a redefinition of the role of the State based on an austerity approach. And this is for three reasons:

  • Because those electoral platforms did not present explicit governance plans based clearly on austerity principles.
  • The simple fact that three parties proposed a rapid goal of reading a zero-deficit does not provide much for a productive direction for Québec and for the preservation of the common good.
  • An electoral campaign plays itself out on numerous issues and not only on one tiem. Only a clear and explicit electoral platform making austerity a principal element of governmental action submitted to the electorate would make it the main issue.

To be honest, public opinion has been so conditioned for two decades to see the “zero-deficit” as an untouchable dogma, the only a precise game plan for attaining it presented during an electoral campaign would be able to move past this mantra that has been mechanically repeated for a long time on all platforms.

To illustrate his suggestion looking to “nip in the bud” the coming mobilisation, Mr. Pratte also gives us the example of Ireland. “Two years ago,” he writes, “the government submitted to the population the financial stabilization program imposed by the European Union. In relation to a debate that was largely about the legitimacy of austerity, the Irish voted 60% in favour of the European fiscal pact. If the Couillard government obtained such a strong show of support for its politics, the protesters could no longer pretend to represent the majority.”

First, the fiscal pact of the European Union and its important political particularities excludes any reasonable comparison with the current situation in Québec.

Second, who, here, among the opponents of austerity, is pretending to represent the “majority”?

Third, since when is NOT representing the “majority” an argument for not publicly expressing oneself on a fundamental question of public governance? Democracy is for everyone.

***
Election or referendum?

Unless they want to hide something important from the population, electoral campaigns are a privileged moment for asking for a clear and explicit mandate when it comes to a governmental program.

We are obviously not talking about a referendum here, but an election. So we do not talk about a referendum on an independence project. Which, contrary to a majority electoral mandate in our parliamentary system, requires a majority of at least 50% +1. Or, again, a reference on, let’s say, the repatriation of a constitution and the adoption of a new charter of rights. Yet, in Canada, no reference was held in 1982 to submit it all to English Canada and Québec. But that is a different story…

Let us return to our austere sheep.

The problem resides exactly in the fact that during the electoral campaign, if it was true that the rapid goal of attaining a zero-deficit was in the Liberal platform, the breadth of the changes announced after the election was not.

Before the election, Mr. Couillard swore that a real economic revival and the creation of jobs would allow for the rapid attainment of budgetary equilibrium. After the election, he precisely inverted this equation. The zero-deficit became the guarantee of the revival. And it is certainly not because he is far from being the first new government to take a different road than that which it promised while campaigning that makes this way any more legitimate.
***

A clear mandate

Soliciting a clear mandate when a party proposes a major change in governmental orientation is nevertheless essential. For or against their platforms, we are not lacking any examples.

In 1995, the very conservative Mike Harris obtained a majority victory in Ontario after having presented, a year earlier, a detailed game plan that he called his “Common Sense Revolution”. In fact, his platform proposed an all-out austerity plan.

Inspired by Reagan and Thatcher, Mike Harris proposed massive income tax reductions, a distinctly less interventionist State, the privatization of several public services, an important deregularization, the creation of 750 000 jobs, a rapid attainment of a zero-deficit, compressions to welfare, etc.

The same goes for the very conservative Albertan Ralph Klein, whose majority victory in 1993 rested on a clearly articulated right-wing platform.

Closer to home, in 1962, the Liberal premier Jean Lesage, when his government was only two years old, unleashed elections to obtain a clear mandate to nationalize hydro-electricity.

The same goes for PQ leader Jacques Parizeau. In 1994, he obtained a majority of seats by clearly engaging himself to hold a quick referendum on Québec’s sovereignty.

In other words, let us not confuse election and referendum.

Would that party leaders start to:

  • Solicit a clear mandate from electors rather than seeking to seduce them instead of convincing them.
  • Understand that democracy does not end on election night.
  • Understand that it also is not limited to “opinions” that we present as being of the “majority” but that it also and especially manifests itself through divergent points of view.
  • Understand that the freedom to assemble peacefully is a fundamental right.

In short, we have a long way to go…

***

Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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