Quebec's austerity agenda may have roots in the drastic spending cuts during the recession of the mid-90s, but the current Liberal government is pushing it forward in an unprecedented and aggressive manner. Arguing that the state of the province's public finances—currently projected as a $3.1 billion deficit this fiscal year—calls for draconian reductions in public spending, Philippe Couillard's government is dismantling the remains of what is known as the "Quebec social-democratic model" while actively promoting the extractive industry's interests over those of its own population.
But with recent protests sometimes growing to over 50,000 people strong, the program is facing mounting opposition and might soon be up against a social movement as fierce as the 2012's so-called "Maple spring." Two years ago, amid-widespread allegations of Liberal corruption and an underperforming economy, massive student demonstrations against the 75 percent tuition increase, and the general civil society uprising against repressive Bill 78—which more or less banned protests across the province—cost former Liberal leader Jean Charest his seat and put the Liberals back in the opposition in September 2012.
But the demise of Liberal power was already foreshadowed by years of corruption scandals in the construction industry involving high-ranking municipal and provincial officials, illegal political funding by mafia bosses, and strong opposition to a Liberal push for shale gas exploration in Quebec.
However, after a 20-month minority Parti Québécois reign—where sovereignty was forgone by austerity with cutbacks to welfare, daycares and education—the Liberals came back into office on April 7, 2014, on vague promises to create 250,000 jobs and to reduce the taxpayers' fiscal burden.
Under their new leader Philippe Couillard—who had gone from Health Minister under Jean Charest to private sector health consultant in partnership with former McGill University Health Centre CEO, Arthur Porter (yes, the same guy accused in a $22.5 million fraud conspiracy)—the Liberals' first move was to commission neoconservative economist Claude Montmarquette and tax expert Luc Godbout to report on the state of public finances.
Their conclusion? Quebec is $3 billion dollars in the hole.
The newly elected government then announced immediate cuts of $3.7 billion and an additional $3 billion for next year. In a drastic effort to reduce public spending and eliminate the deficit—the most brutal since the "zero deficit" campaign of the late 1990s, led by the PQ after the failed referendum of 1995—the government is slashing education, health, and social services budgets and has even ordered a recruitment ban in the public sector. A move that concerns both activists and economic academics alike.
"It's the base of the social security net," Serge Petitclerc from Collectif Québec sans pauvreté told VICE, criticizing the government's decision to cancel $162 million of support to community groups as part of what it calls a spending revision.
"We're faced with a sort of rhetorical extortion," said author and political science professor Alain Deneault. "The government is pretending that there is only one column: expenses." But the problem isn't with expenses, he argues, it's with revenues.
To address the revenue issue, Finance Minister Carlos Leitao—the Laurentian Bank Securities' former chief economist—put together a commission on fiscal reform to examineQuebec's tax system and propose changes to make it more competitive.
According to Deneault, the proposed tax reforms mark an ideological shift in public finances: from a progressive rate income-tax based system to a public utility rates model, where individual user-payer contributions progressively replace collective wealth re-distribution mechanisms. These regressive tax policies translate into raising costs for the public—which mostly impact low-income people.
Indeed, the Liberal government recently confirmed an increase in subsidized daycare rates several times higher than the current inflation rate. Since April, domestic electricity rates have also increased by 4.3 percent, leading to record numbers of electricity cut offs this year.
This doesn't keep the provincially-owned Hydro Quebec from offering discount rates for large business clients. These choices show the government's double standards when it comes to spending reductions.
Additionally, Quebec is also now prepared to invest billions to develop the Plan Nord, which is basically creates a resource-rich open bar for the mining industry. During the recent 2014 Arctic Circle International Conference in Iceland, Couillard said his government would spend $15 to $20 billion over the next eight years in energy projects and construction of infrastructure to attract mining companies to Quebec.
After having approved Enbridge's Line 9b inversion project, the former PQ government invested $115 million in shale oil exploration in Anticosti. Last summer the Liberals gave TransCanada permits for seismic surveys and exploratory drillings in Cacouna—at the heart of the habitat of the endangered beluga—for an oil shipping port, a key part of the Energy East pipeline project. It was forced to suspend the permit after four environmental groupswon an injunction in October. Even though Quebec's attitude towards TransCanada has hardened in the past few weeks, the provincial government still actively promotes the project.
This fall has seen a growing momentum of demonstrations and direct actions both to stop fossil fuel exploitation and transportation in Quebec and to oppose the austerity agenda.
Protesters at an austerity march in Montreal this past October. Photo via the author.
On October 7, four activists forced the shut down of a refinery in Montreal East to protest against the Line 9 inversion. A few days later, on October 16, several hundreds people went out to a protest against TransCanada's oil shipping port in Cacouna. There was the estimated 50,000 people then took to the street of Montreal on October 31 in mass-demonstration against austerity called by Coalition contre la tarification et la privatisation des services publics. On November 9, thousands across Quebec protested against the end of universal daycare rates. More recently, students groups organized a day of action against austerity on November 12 and a march against pipelines and Plan Nord on Saturday, November 15.
As the protests intensify, bridges between the climate justice and the social justice movements are starting to emerge. "Each of these struggles has specific demands and needs, but they are all fighting against the same corporate-driven policies aimed at extracting profits for the rich from the austerity imposed violently on everyone else," reads the Together Against Austerity basis of unity statement. "These efforts and struggles can find common cause. Let us clearly identify the source of this assault and confront it together."
The next national protest is scheduled for November 29, under the large coalition banner of Refusons l'austérité (Refuse austerity), and it might just be a preview of things to come. The anti-austerity organization Comité printemps 2015 acts as a hub for protests and is already calling for a wildcat strike. It's statement entitled "Bearing the fangs" calls for "effective struggles on collective and environmental rights" to take place all across Quebec.
From the sounds of it, spring might come early next year.