On Thursday, April 2, tens of thousands of students swept through Montreal’s streets demanding an end to the austerity offensive of the governing Quebec Liberals. In response, Treasury Board president Martin Coiteux reassured the angry youth that the government was doing it all for our own benefit. Ah well, thank you, dear minister. Had we known, we would have stayed home.
A few days earlier, education minister François Blais thoughtfully suggested that university administrations expel two to three students a day in the interests of “calming the ardours” of certain activists. “You do that with children when you want to correct their behaviour,” explained the minister in his most earnest impersonation of Father Knows Best.
These are not gaffes or mere maladroit expressions of otherwise sound intentions. They are windows into the deeply rooted paternalist culture of the party in power. What the Liberals still fail to grasp is that this exact authoritarianism was one of the major forces that fuelled the expanding revolt in 2012, as the wildly opposed democratic cultures of two centuries collided head-on. And they still fail to grasp that political legitimacy, for the social media generation, derives less from the authority of artificial electoral majorities than from continuous deliberation and fierce debate among equals.
This rising paradigm of horizontalism is what propelled the many youth movements that have swept the world since 2011 — from the Indignados to Occupy Wall Street — and is a central tenet of the student federation ASSÉ, which has doubled in strength since 2012 to now rival the floundering FEUQ with nearly 80,000 members.
Students in the crosshairs
For all of a second or two following Philippe Couillard’s election as premier, there lingered a faint hope that his government would adopt a more stately and high-minded tone than that of his predecessor, but it now seems you can’t teach an old Liberal dog new tricks. This tendency is troubling on many fronts.
As Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has eloquently written in these pages, we are presently in the midst of a frightful escalation of youth-bashing rhetoric — an escalation that this government is doing nothing to calm, and whose flames it may even be fanning.
Some questions to consider: What kind of society bullies its youth, if not one that devours its own future? What kind of government prefers to browbeat an awakened generation back into submission, rather than listen to the straining voices of those who will inherit the consequences of today’s actions? And what kind of premier opts for the arrogance of authoritarian decrees over the respect and dialogue required to ensure the maintenance of intergenerational harmony?
In 2012, the Liberals of Jean Charest were widely accused of setting fire to the social peace by responding to a historic youth revolt with denial, intransigence, and violent contempt. So far, the ominous signs from this government suggest that not a single lesson has been learned. This is unsurprising, perhaps, when you understand the depths of their dogmatic convictions.
The ghost of Thatcher governs us still
The fundamental moral failure of our leaders is their refusal to accept the emergence of a generation that simply does not think like them. We are today witnessing the political cultures of two eras entering into mounting conflict, yet the political establishment refuses to cede an inch of its influence to the rising cohort. The gravity of this ethical offence should not be understated, for where the youth may not have the numerical force of a democratic majority, we, as the inhabitants of tomorrow, do have a moral right to be heard.
To be clear, I do not for a second doubt the sincerity of Martin Coiteux or this government when they claim to be acting in the best interests of the youth. That is their belief, premised on a neoliberal and commercialist value system that measures worth only in material wealth, at the expense of our health, education, and even the planet’s capacity to support human life. The social and ecological debts being left to future generations figure nowhere in their ledgers.
Indeed, where we see the hard limits of the ideological myopia at work is when the students counter the government’s Thatcherite “there is no alternative” rationale with concrete and costed proposals that would decrease the debt. They would do so not by taking an axe to our social fabric, but by strengthening it, not by further enriching hoarders at the top and aggravating historic levels of income inequality, but by cutting these grave disparities in the interests of spurring economic growth from the bottom up.
We can raise taxes on corporations, which currently sit at a paltry 27 per cent (combined federal and provincial) — 15 points lower on average than in the United States. We can reinstate the capital tax on financial transactions, which existed for decades before Charest abolished it in 2007, much to the satisfaction of the major banks that raked in a combined profit of $32 billion in 2014. We can reinstate more tax brackets so that the ultra-wealthy contribute their fair share, as they did for long decades when economic growth was both robust and widely shared. (Currently all those earning above $102,000 pay the same provincial rate). We can reduce tax credits for the wealthy and fight white-collar tax evasion with the energy and seriousness it demands. We can implement a publicly funded pharmacare program to save hundreds of millions of dollars on the purchase of pharmaceuticals through economies of scale.
Dogmas over dialogue
We can debate the merits and limitations of each of these proposals, just as we can debate the benefits of Keynesian deficit-spending versus rigid austerity doctrine in the present economic context. Yet this requires a government that is both moderate and mature enough to acknowledge that their prescriptions are conditioned by their own particular worldviews, and that they hold no right to a monopoly in deciding the future that others will inherit.
Instead, Quebec has a fiercely ideological government that speaks at and over the youth rather than speaking with them, that adamantly refuses to see the legitimacy of their considered alternatives, and that shows no interest whatsoever in seeking to understand the sources of their simmering anger.
Indeed, behind claims of “deficit zero,” the government’s latest budget actually holds a surplus of $1.6 billion, which will be used to pay down debt with no public debate.
The aging political establishment is guilty of no less than seeking to dominate the future. Yet all that they can ultimately accomplish is to render the inevitable changing of the guard more turbulent, and to once again drive a wedge through society by pitting one generation against another, with all the dreadful consequences this entails.
Regardless of whether you agree with the students, the Liberals’ dangerous incapacity for dialogue is something no Quebecer should countenance. A state cannot govern against its own youth.