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Challenges facing Québec solidaire following breakthrough in Quebec election

Québec solidaire's Amir Khadir (left) has been elected to the Québec National Assembly.

By Richard Fidler

December 15, 2008 -- In the December 8 Québec general election, the Liberal government headed by Jean Charest was re-elected with 66 seats, turning its minority status before the election into a thin majority of seats in the National Assembly. The sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ), benefiting from a late surge in the polls, was elected in 51 seats and replaced the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) as official parliamentary opposition. The ADQ elected only seven members.

This was the second general election for Québec solidaire (QS), a left-wing party formed in 2006 by the fusion of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option citoyenne (OC). QS managed to elect one of its co-leaders, Amir Khadir, in Montréal’s Mercier riding [parliamentary constituency seat] who got more than 38% of the vote. The other QS co-leader, Françoise David, was second in Gouin riding, with 32%. QS candidates scored over 10% of the vote in several other Montréal ridings and close to 10% in some other regions of the province. Both Khadir and David were running against sitting PQ members.

However, the party’s share of the overall votes — it contested 122 of Quebec’s 125 ridings — increased only slightly from its score in the last election, in March 2007, and remains just under 4%. And the total number of votes for the QS candidates actually declined by 21,000, in an election characterised by the lowest voter turnout since the 1920s.

The election of Khadir is a big step forward for QS. It gives the party a voice in the National Assembly, a primary arena for political debate, and guarantees media attention to the party on an ongoing basis. It was a success for the QS strategy in this campaign of prioritising the election of one or both of its co-leaders — a major challenge in Quebec’s first-past-the-post electoral system. And indeed, Khadir was endorsed by a broad range of supporters, including the president of the Parti Vert (Greens), who urged a vote for Khadir in preference to the PV’s own candidate in Mercier riding.

There was also some surprising support. Robert Perrault, a former PQ minister who had once represented Mercier, publicly endorsed Khadir, as did Claude Béland, the former head of the giant Desjardins Movement of caisses populaires (credit unions), a major business figure who has worked with Khadir and the QS among others in the campaign for proportional representation.

QS platform

Québec solidaire has yet to hammer out a comprehensive program. It has proceeded cautiously since its founding, given the different political cultures of its original components; the UFP was an amalgam of anti-globalisation activists and existing far-left organisations, while OC was based largely in the feminist and community activist milieu. At successive conventions and meetings of its leading bodies, QS has adopted incremental “platforms” based on draft proposals drawn up by party subcommittees.

This was the second general election for Québec solidaire since it was founded. Its 34-page platform in this election incorporated many of the demands advanced by various organisations in the women’s, student, ecology and trade union movements. It could generally be characterised as social-democratic, not anti-capitalist. Its proposals, it said, were designed, overall, to be “concrete and achievable in the short term”. Québec solidaire does not identify itself as socialist.

A separate platform addressed to the “financial crisis”, published on the QS website during the campaign, gives a flavour of the party platform as a whole. It had four components.

The first, entitled “Take our pensions out of the hands of the speculators”, called for:

  • Raising allowable contributions to the government-run Quebec Pension Plan (QPP) to up to 13% of income, which would raise retirement benefits by an average of $140 a month.
  • Limiting the ceiling on RRSP annual contributions to $10,000, to discourage the use of private financial market savings (RRSPs are private pension funds; contributions to them are tax-deductible).
  • Instructing the Caisse de dépôt et de placement, which administers QPP assets, to invest in “ecological and socially responsible businesses”.

A second component, entitled “Protect our economic development against unlimited greed for profit”, featured demands for locally oriented purchasing and development, worker co-operatives, and green and organic agriculture. Companies shutting down, it said, should be required to repay all government loans and special tax benefits they had received.

A third component, proposing environmentally friendly employment alternatives, called for injecting $1.2 billion into public transit, “investing massively in the social economy” (NGOs and not-for-profit businesses), construction of 50,000 units of social housing, nationalisation and expansion of wind-power development, creation of a further 38,000 childcare positions, hiring of more teachers, etc.

The fourth component, “to reduce the effects of the rising cost of living on families”, opposed any increase in public service costs and called for increasing the list of goods exempt from sales tax and raising the minimum wage to $10.20 an hour.

This ostensible emergency program is notable for how limited it is. It contains:

  • No protection for pensioners already hit by massive devaluations in their personal retirement funds, and no major proposal to provide adequate personal income for seniors through public pensions.
  • No proposals for nationalisation of industries other than wind power, which currently accounts for one-tenth of one percent of Quebec’s energy consumption.
  • An extremely modest increase in the minimum wage, just 70 cents an hour more than Ontario’s minimum wage as of March 31, 2009, and not enough to raise incomes above the poverty line.

Progressive proposals

Of course, in a longer term (in most cases undefined), QS proposes much more. For example, abolition of user fees in municipal transit; more subways and tramways; an end to public-private partnerships; 100% tax on capital gains; improved social assistance to cover all essential needs; protection for self-employed workers; abolition of Charest’s anti-labour legislation and greater access to unionisation including for farm workers; creation of a government-owned drug company (Pharma-Québec); expanded health insurance to include dental care; free university education and strengthening of the public, secular education system; greater access to legal aid; affirmative action for women, immigrants and ethnic minorities; and stronger protection of the French language as “the common language of Quebec”. And much more. The full platform of “engagements” (undertakings, or promises) can be viewed (in English, too) at http://www.quebecsolidaire.net/engagements_2008.

The effect is to break the QS platform into two: a primary group of proposals comprised of very modest emergency measures; and a secondary group, a “maximum” program for some longer duration. Yet there seems little connection between the concrete minimum short-term proposals and the more general longer-term objectives.

Programmatically, however, Québec solidaire is primarily distinguished from the federal social democrats, the New Democratic Party, by QS’s support for Quebec independence. And in this election the party put greater emphasis than before on its objective of a sovereign Quebec — referred to in the platform as “popular sovereignty”, to distinguish it from the neoliberal sovereignty promoted (intermittently) by the Parti québécois.

Québec solidaire’s social agenda, the platform said, is closely linked with its support of Quebec sovereignty. QS advocates a new constitution for a sovereign Quebec, to be drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly with equal male-female representation and representative of “the different components of Quebec society”. QS recognises the right of self-determination of the indigenous nations living on Quebec territory; they would be invited “to define — with the popular sovereignty approach of their choosing — the relationships they will maintain with the Quebec nation, including within the process of defining our political institutions”.

QS also advocates electoral reform based on institution of a two-ballot system, one for direct election of constituency representatives in the National Assembly and another to ensure proportional representation of parties winning at least 2% of the overall popular vote. Steps would be taken to ensure equal representation of women and men.

International solidarity

A final section of Québec solidaire’s platform was addressed to “fostering solidarity among the peoples of the world”. It had three components. The first included promotion of “government-to-government relationships with the Aboriginal nations present on the Quebec territory”.

The second, solidarity with “other peoples”, called for “a political, social and diplomatic rapprochement” with “progressive governments, in particular on the American continent, by participating in common projects and events (cultural, economic and media)”; and “setting out to replace free-trade pacts such as NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], FTAA [Free Trade Areas of the Americas] or the SSP [Security and Prosperity Partnership between Canada and the United States], and proposing new international treaties based on individual and collective rights, respect for the environment and a widening of democracy (such as the ALBA [Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, the trade agreement currently involving Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia]).”

The third component, “promoting peace”, said QS would propose “a motion in the National Assembly to oppose any Canadian imperialist intervention in Afghanistan”. Presumably, this would include the current Canadian intervention. A curious aspect is the platform’s stated refusal of “direct or indirect involvement in imperialist aggression and occupation wars and in the rise of neo-conservatism and fundamentalism”; there is no explanation of why “fundamentalism” is lumped in this way with imperialism, leaving an unfortunate impression that QS is tainted somewhat by Islamophobia. Nor is there any mention of NATO or NORAD, the military alliances with the US, a surprising omission in the platform.

Challenges ahead

With the election behind it, Québec solidaire now turns its attention to completing its program. A convention in 2009 will debate and adopt proposals now being discussed by the membership around the theme of “achieving a democratic, pluralist and sovereign Quebec”. Non-members as well as members are invited to participate in “citizen’s circles”, each composed of at least three persons (one must be QS member), and to prepare written perspectives and analysis texts for discussion in the party.

Another major challenge facing QS, now that the media spotlight will be focused on Amir Khadir’s intervention in the National Assembly, is to develop as well its extra-parliamentary actions. QS has always defined itself as a party of the ballot boxes and the streets, but the latter aspect — which involves far more than participating in demonstrations — has tended to be eclipsed by the party’s focus on electoral action. QS needs to develop a strategic conception of coherent intervention as a party in the unions and social movements whose concerns and interests it seeks to articulate and advance.

QS has only begun to plumb the possibilities in this area. In this election campaign it received important support from the Montreal central council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), which endorsed the QS candidates in every one of the city’s ridings. “Their election to the National Assembly”, said Gaétan Châteauneuf, the council’s president, “would be significant because a breach would then be opened to enable the circulation and promotion of progressive ideas in the Quebec political arena. In the central council, we think this is a realistic objective that must be tacked at the earliest opportunity. The unity of the progressive forces is fundamental to achieving this goal.”

The council’s parent federation, the CSN, however, took a neutral stance in the election, while the largest trade union federation, the FTQ, supported the Parti québécois.

Amir Khadir’s election attracted wide attention among other forces in the left, and not least among the members and supporters of SPQ-Libre (Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec Libre), a recognised “club” or interest group within the PQ that includes many prominent trade unionists.

In the following article, Pierre Dubuc, the secretary of SPQ-Libre and editor of the popular monthly newspaper L’aut’journal, offers his view of the election result and holds out the perspective of a strategic alliance between the PQ and QS in the fight for a sovereign Quebec.

SPQ-Libre leader analyses results: Election of 51 PQ MNAs and Amir Khadir

By Pierre Dubuc

L’aut’journal, December 11, 2008 -- It was foreseeable that the economic crisis would hit Quebec on December 9, the day after the elections. The bosses were kind enough not to inconvenience Jean Charest with layoffs during the election campaign. Now that it was over, the recreational products division of Bombardier gave the signal with the abolition of 1000 jobs, close to half of them in Valcourt. The next day, the Rio Tinto mining group, which owns Alcan, announced the elimination of 14,000 jobs worldwide — the plants in Beauharnois and Shawinigan may be shut down — and the postponement of its modernisation of the aluminum works in Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean. Further bad news is on the way.

Above all, the employers did not want a minority government, at the mercy of the opposition parties — and therefore the electorate — to deal with the crisis. It would have been forced to provide assistance to the unemployed, pensioners and economically devastated regions in order to ensure its re-election. The minority Charest was very kind, but the bosses know they will need the majority Charest, the champion of decrees and the parliamentary guillotine, to confront the crisis and the anger of the workers and popular classes.

Power Corporation lent its hand to ensure his re-election through its subsidiary Gesca, which controls the vast majority of daily newspapers in Quebec. Every evening, the Téléjournal displayed the result by presenting a table prepared by Influence Communications showing the relative weight accorded each party leader during the previous 48 hours. Jean Charest was generally way out in front with almost twice the media attention as [PQ leader] Pauline Marois or [ADQ leader] Mario Dumont. No one got upset, no one protested, no one demanded that this glaring imbalance be corrected.

Influence Communications openly acknowledged today on its website the direct link between the media coverage for each party and the election results: “The media attention given each of the parties from November 6 to December 8 was once again very representative of the final vote”! With a media weighting of 45% the Liberals got 42% of the votes. With 33% of media attention, the Parti Québécois got 35% of the votes and the ADQ got 16% of the votes with 17% of the media coverage.

Despite it all, Jean Charest is smiling out of only one side of his mouth. His victory is marred by the low participation rate. Barely one out of four registered voters voted Liberal. Moreover, the collapse of the ADQ will prevent that party from presenting itself as centrist and will clearly push it to the right of the political spectrum, where it really belongs.

But it was above all the surprising performance of the Parti Québécois that undermined the Liberal victory. Thanks to the political crisis in Ottawa, the national question, up to then kept in the dark, resurfaced. Drawing the lessons of his defeat in Quebec during the last federal election, Prime Minister Harper calculated that a majority government was possible without Quebec, especially if he campaigned in Canada against Quebec!

In his all-out attack against the Liberal-NDP Coalition supported by the Bloc Québécois, Stephen Harper targeted the “separatists” of the Bloc Québécois, proclaiming that the fracture between the sovereigntists and federalists was fundamental, more important even than the division between the left and the right.

In fact, Mr Harper is using the national divide to impose his neoliberal solution in opposition to the Keynesian solution presented by the Coalition. Mr Harper wants to come to the aid of the bankers and business leaders. The Coalition appeal was directed primarily to the unemployed, pensioners and regions devastated by company closures.

Curiously, Stephen Harper has a better reading of the link between the Quebec national question and progressive ideas than many Quebec sovereigntists and progressives.

From this perspective, one can only rejoice at the rebuff just suffered by those in the Parti Québécois who advocate putting the sovereigntist option and the so-called “modernisation” of social democracy on the back burner in order to win over the ADQ electorate.

The ADQ collapsed because its neoliberal ideology and its program of privatisation and deregulation have just been swept aside by the economic crisis. Clearly, the ADQ’s success in the previous election was not the result of a sudden conversion of the voters to right-wing ideas, but a rejection of the first-term Charest and a refusal to support a Parti Québécois led by André Boisclair.

The other major event of the recent vote is the election of the first representative of Québec solidaire to the National Assembly. However, Amir Khadir’s election is largely a personal success. The Quebec-wide results of Québec solidaire are anemic, with a meagre 3.78% of the electorate voting for it. By dividing the sovereigntist and progressive vote, Québec solidaire can be held responsible for the defeat of four PQ candidates, including Dr. Réjean Hébert in the riding of Saint-François.

Amir Khadir is very media-savvy and an able politician. He will breathe new energy into Québec solidaire. It should be noted that this represents a victory of the sovereigntist wing of QS. During the last federal election, QS could not get beyond a denunciation of the Harper government. Paralysed by its federalist wing — some prominent members of the party were NDP candidates — Québec solidaire was unable to openly support the Bloc Québécois. This fell short of the position of Toronto novelist Margaret Atwood and some Canadian Auto Workers union locals who called on the Québécois to vote for the Bloc Québécois in order to block Harper.

Dr Amir Khadir personally supported the Bloc Québécois during the recent federal election[1] and, as a committed sovereigntist, has consistently defended the idea of an alliance with the Parti Québécois. But his view is not shared by Québec solidaire as a whole. For example, in a book that has just been published, Un certain espoir (Éditions Logiques), Jean-Marc Piotte, one of the mandarins of the Quebec left, writes, in a chapter entitled [translation] “Liberating ourselves from the sovereigntist fantasy”: “Québec solidaire says it prioritizes social demands over the national question. It should go further and liberate its program from its commitment to sovereignty. It could then free itself of the strategic voting advocated by the PQ members and go after the progressive vote in the west end of Montréal that has gone to the Greens for lack of anything better.”

It must be said that Jean-Marc Piotte — who prides himself for having been a founding member of Parti Pris[2] — states in the same book that [translation] “the people are no longer willing to fight for independence, because Quebec has succeeded marvellously in developing itself culturally, economically and politically within Canada and despite the federal connection.”

Amir Khadir’s election will strengthen the sovereigntist wing in Québec solidaire and that should be welcomed by the sovereigntists and progressives of the Parti Québécois.

The economic crisis is going to hit Quebec very hard and the situation will be terrible in many communities. To cite only one example, consider the Domtar workers at Lebel-sur-Quévillon, who, after the closure of their factory because of a lock-out three years ago, were directed to be retrained as miners, since the mining industry was booming at the time. Now, having finished their retraining, they watch helplessly while the mines close as a result of dropping raw materials prices. What future do they and their families have?

Similar cases will occur over and over again in the coming months. And there will not be much help coming from Ottawa with a Conservative government — its priority remaining an ever-more-costly war in Afghanistan — more inclined to go to the rescue of provinces where it hopes to win a parliamentary majority to give it elbow room to help business leaders and demand concessions from workers.

Inevitably, in a context of social crisis, the question of Quebec’s sovereignty will be posed. This is the lever that we must grasp in order to destabilise the Canadian financial and military establishment and impose a progressive solution to the Canadian economic, political and constitutional crisis for the greater benefit of the Québécois nation but also for the workers of English Canada. It is up to the progressives and sovereigntists of the Parti Québécois and Québec solidaire to propose a program, a strategy and some appropriate steps to take!

[Richard Fidler is a member of the Socialist Project in Ottawa, and a contributing editor of Socialist Voice. He also maintains the blog Life on the Left, where these articles also appear. They have been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]


[1] Amir Khadir was a candidate for the Bloc Québécois in Outremont riding in the 2000 federal election, before the formation of Québec solidaire.

[2] One of the first major left-wing independentist magazines in Quebec, Parti Pris proclaimed its support for “a free, secular and socialist Quebec”. It published from 1963 to the end of that decade. Associated with the monthly magazine, beginning in 1964, was a publishing house, Éditions Parti pris, and an organisation, the Club Parti pris (later the Mouvement de libération populaire).

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