Quebec’s growing popular movement against government austerity is about much more than opposition to a particular government policy. It is quickly becoming a battle over the legitimacy of Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government.
The concept of legitimacy is central to the study of political science, and it’s what politicians are getting at when, for example, they refer to a pipeline project failing to achieve social licence. Definitions of the concept by numerous philosophers all share the idea that legitimacy is tied to the notion of popular acceptance of the exercise of authority — what John Locke referred to as “consent of the governed.”
Whereas dictatorships and theocracies have relied on religion, tradition, ideology and the charisma of leaders as sources of legitimacy, secular democratic governments, which are supposed to be the heirs of Enlightenment values, have relied on elections and notions of the common good. In theory then, a legitimate democratic government is one that is elected on the basis of a transparent political program aimed at advancing the public interest.
This raises the question of whether the government of Quebec, given its actions since coming into office, should be viewed as legitimate.
A government with political legitimacy?
Supporters of the Couillard government are quick to point out that his Liberal party won a significant majority in the last election and therefore has the right to govern as it sees fit.
This position might hold water if the Couillard Liberals had clearly laid out in their election campaign the radical changes they are now imposing on Quebec society. Instead, the Liberal election campaign was very much focused on presenting Couillard as a vote for a stable status quo — there would be no more divisive debate over the Charter of Values and most importantly no referendum. Parti Québécois candidate Pierre-Karl Peladeau's “on veut un pays” (“we want a country”) fist pump was a gift that allowed the Liberal campaign to go into referendum fear-mongering overdrive, where it remained right up to the election.
The few times social spending was mentioned during the campaign, the message was extremely clear: any cuts to social spending would target bureaucracy and not affect frontline services.
Since coming into office the Liberals have done the opposite. After presenting themselves as a force for pragmatic stability, they have proposed some of the most radical changes to Quebec society since the Quiet Revolution. Couillard’s quiet counter-revolution seeks to rapidly roll back the revolution’s hard-fought social gains as it guts nearly every aspect of Quebec’s social safety net. Not only will these cuts affect frontline public services for average Quebecers, but they will also undoubtedly have the most severe consequences for the most vulnerable members of society.
A government with economic legitimacy?
Of course the Liberals, in presenting their various austerity measures, never mention the harm done to the most vulnerable members of society. Instead they rely on a series of euphemistic metaphors involving family budgeting. The government isn’t harming the poor: “we” have to make some “tough decisions” because “we” have been “living beyond our means.”
Like an episode of Father Knows Best, family members (the public) are supposed to accept these paternalistic pronouncements at face value without asking questions.
If we did ask questions, we would quickly discover that it’s not all of “us” who have been living beyond our means. In fact, far from living beyond our means, the vast majority of us have been making due with less and less as the quality of our public services steadily decline. This has been true even during periods of strong economic growth. Recall that the last time Quebec’s public sector workers were legislated back to work with salary increases that failed to keep up with inflation was 2005, a time when Quebec’s economy was booming and government was flush with revenues.
Meanwhile others — those who happen to be the most wealthy — have been asked to make no sacrifices at all. To the contrary, since 2000 they have been showered with a series of tax cuts that are the real cause of the government’s current deficit. It is to pay for these tax cuts that “we” are currently being asked to “tighten our belts.”
Even if one accepts that the goal of deficit reduction is worth the social harm of austerity measures, there remains the question of whether such measures are effective in achieving their stated goal of promoting economic growth and debt reduction.
Here the evidence from around the world clearly indicates that the politics of austerity fail miserably. From the austerity measures that transformed the stock market crash of 1929 into a decade-long Great Depression, to the structural adjustment programs the IMF and World Bank imposed on much of the developing world in the 1980s and ’90s, to the U.K. austerity measures that in 2010 produced a double-dip recession, to the austerity measures the Troika has imposed on Greece and Spain, these policies have done nothing but stifle economic growth, create mass unemployment and widen inequality. The resulting decline in government tax revenues has meant that in nearly every place these policies are applied, government indebtedness worsens.
Rather than getting the country out of debt, each round of structural adjustment or austerity merely serves as a pretence for the next. This is exactly the vicious cycle that Greece has been enduring. With each round of austerity imposed by the Troika, Greece’s economy weakens and its indebtedness grows.
Although Quebec’s debt-to-GDP ratio is nowhere near that of a country like Greece (even if our share of the federal debt is included, Quebec’s debt is 35.1 per cent of GDP while the OECD average is 69 per cent) and we don’t require loans from a lending agency such as the IMF, the Couillard government is nevertheless signing us up for the vicious cycle of austerity. If the current round of reckless spending cuts reverse Quebec’s current fragile economic growth and we enter a recession, the resulting decline in government revenues will then become the rationale for the next round of austerity.
A government with moral legitimacy?
Perhaps the clearest indication of the legitimacy of a democratic government is the way it deals with dissent. A legitimate democratic government is able to build consensus for its policies through public consultation and open debate. When a government is unable to build a broad consensus and instead resorts to stifling open debate and attacking the fundamental rights of political dissidents, we begin to apply labels such as “illiberal democracy.”
While it is easy for us to point fingers at the likes of Vladimir Putin for leading Russia down the path of illiberal democracy, it is much harder for us to see the same process unfolding right here at home, where the parliamentary procedures — well honed at the federal level by Harper’s Conservatives — of using omnibus motions and invoking closure stifle debate within the National Assembly. The tactics of kettling, mass ticketing and overt brutality stifle it outside.
That each of these acts, used routinely by police in Quebec, are blatant violations of fundamental rights protected by both the Quebec and Canadian charters seems not to bother members of the province’s political class in the least. For a government whose program is disconnected from any notion of the public good, doing away with fundamental rights is simply the cost of doing business.
In 2012 a cégep student playing harmonica in a peaceful protest was hit in the eye by pieces of a police stun grenade, causing him to permanently lose vision in one eye. More recently another young protestor nearly suffered the same fate as a member of Quebec City’s riot squad fired a tear gas canister point-blank into her face. These students were not dangerous radicals. They were human beings exercising their fundamental right to express their disagreement with government.
If anything, these events illustrate that the dangerous radicals in Quebec are not those out protesting in the streets. The dangerous radicals are those in government using violence to achieve their political ends.
How to describe a government that would voluntarily implement a set of economic policies that have produced nothing but economic stagnation, mass unemployment, increased indebtedness and growing inequality nearly everywhere they have been tried? How to describe a government that would hide its extremist ideology-driven economic agenda from voters at election time? How to describe a government that would rather brutalize its youth than enter into a constructive dialogue with them?
One word describes such a government: illegitimate.