Quebec elections 2014: Defeat austerity and the charter!

Just 18 months since the last election, voters in Quebec will once again head to the polls on Apr. 7. With a weak minority government and a parliament that has been deadlocked on pretty much everything, the Parti Québécois is looking to secure that majority government they failed to obtain in the fall of 2012. The PQ’s support has increased by about ten percentage points in less than a year, making this goal a possibility. But what does this election mean for workers and youth in Quebec today?

Following their election in the fall of 2012, the PQ found themselves floundering in the polls. Having betrayed their main election promises by raising tuition and maintaining the health tax, they drew hatred from all sides. They found their salvation in the “Charter of Quebec Values” which they proposed last summer. This calculated move saw the PQ don the clothes of the old Action Democratique du Quebec (the pre-cursor to the CAQ) in a bid to exploit the fears of the majority francophone population of the province. In a very short period of time the political terrain has been radically altered in Quebec. The PQ managed to shift the goal posts of the entire political dialogue in the province. Instead of criticizing the PQ's betrayal or the floundering Quebec economy, people have been sucked into debating what someone wears on their head when they work in a public institution. By demagogically framing the debate as an "us versus them" scenario and claiming to be continuing the traditions of the Quiet Revolution, they have been propelled to levels of support not seen in years and places them within shooting distance of forming a majority government.

The latest polls from Léger Marketing has the PQ up at 37% support, and 45% support amongst francophone voters who make up a strong majority in most of the province’s ridings. This compares to the 35% support enjoyed by the Liberals, but who only have 23% amongst francophones. Other polls have placed the PQ’s support as high as 40% which traditionally is enough to win the majority of seats in the National ASSÉmbly. But despite all their claims to be fighting for the interests of the Quebecois, a PQ government will be an absolute disaster for Quebecois workers and youth. The question is this: in the interests of which Quebecois are they fighting for, the rich or the poor?

The PQ embraces the bosses

The apparent issue that triggered the election was the latest budget tabled by the PQ, which was opposed by both the Liberals and the CAQ. Following recommendations from the largest bosses' association in the province (the Conseil du patronat du Québec), which advised the government to “reduce the generosity of our social programs”, the PQ's budget proposed a continuation of cuts to programs and social services, while increasing investment in profitable areas like shale gas exploration. The budget suggests increasing the cost of childcare from $7/day to $9/day, reducing the number of school boards, increasing hydro rates, and investing in exploitation of shale gas on Anticosti Island. The daycare and hydro increases alone are estimated to cost a family with one child an extra $500 per year. The budget also suggests re-opening the collective bargaining agreement with the province’s physicians in order to “spread the planned increases for the next two years over a longer period in the long-term agreement.” These proposals have been met with shock and denouncements from the labour movement and daycare service providers.

As the economic crisis presses on, the Parti Québécois can no longer maintain the illusion that they represent the interests of both the workers and the capitalists. In a game-changing move which has sent shockwaves throughout the entire labour movement, the PQ announced they would be running Quebecor media mogul and arch union-buster Pierre Karl Péladeau in the riding or Saint-Jérôme. Péladeau is the majority shareholder in the Quebecor media conglomerate which controls 40% of the media in Quebec including Videotron, TVA, many newspapers, and the Sun network. Under his stewardship, the company has locked out its workers no fewer than 14 times! He also oversaw the creation of the right-wing Sun News Network in English Canada, which is commonly known as “the Fox News of Canada.” Quebecor media sources were also among the most vicious opponents of the student strike in 2012.

The Quebec ethics commissioner has urged Péladeau to sell his $700-million stake in Quebecor. This is proposed to supposedly eliminate the obvious worrying situation of a man owning the province’s media being a minister in the government at the same time. This Quebecois version of Silvio Berlusconi rejected this advice and has instead said that he will be placing these shares under “blind trust”. So, we are being asked to “blindly trust” that he will not use his obvious influence on the media in Quebec?

This move has placed a clear dividing line between those on the side of the bosses and those on the side of the workers. The nomination of Péladeau has actually been welcomed by former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe as “excellent news for me because I think we have to have people from different horizons. A real coalition — this is what we need.” As well, Marc Laviolette, the former CSN president and leader of SPQ-libre (Unionists for a Free Quebec), stated that Péladeau is a “good catch for the PQ”. As well, former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau published a letter in L'Aut Journal supporting Péladeau's nomination. This letter was signed by many notable sovereigntists and trade unionists like like ex-CSN president Girard Larose and ex-PQ premier Bernard Landry.

On the other side, Quebec solidaire leader Françoise David has come out denouncing Péladeau and stated, “Never will a QS deputy sit next to Pierre Karl Péladeau.”  Amir Khadir, the QS deputy in Mercier, has also come out strongly against Péladeau’s candidacy for the PQ, saying, “Workers have rights and these rights have to be improved and protected, not attacked by corporate business leaders like Pierre Karl Péladeau.” This is a very positive development because it is making it very clear who the PQ stands for and exposing them as traitors in the eyes of the workers. This is pushing the unions and Quebec solidaire in the same direction and could lead to a coalition of labour forces against the capitalist parties. QS has now launched an appeal for all “workers, unionists, and progressives” to join the party as the only option which believes in “defending workers, ordinary people, the middle class.”

The labour movement must organize a fight back!

This scandal with Péladeau is really a gift for Quebec solidaire. At the start of the election the QS leadership was unfortunately plotting a course which made them increasingly less discernible from the PQ. In her speech to open the party’s campaign, QS leader Françoise David outlined Quebec solidaire’s mission in the election: “We will be talking about sovereignty. A country of Quebec should be founded on common values — equal rights for men and women, secularism, but that's not all. There is also the environment, social justice, democracy — we will discussing all of this over the next few weeks.”  This is barely different than anything that comes out of Pauline Marois' mouth and plays into the myth that Quebec workers share “common values” with their bosses. QS’ election slogans this time around were also noticeably vaguer than in years past. Instead of directly speaking to the needs of the population, the slogans stuck to fuzzy calls to "Vote with your head", and “For the love of Quebec solidaire”.

The good news is that with the announcement that Péladeau will be running for the PQ, QS has shifted their focus and is now targeting the working class and the unions. Their latest campaign is called “For the love of the workers”, and vows to fight for better anti-scab legislation in a specific jab against Péladeau and the PQ. QS has also announced a few notable trade unionists who will be running for the party this election. Commenting on these measure, Françoise David said that “it indicates where Québec solidaire stands ... on the side of workers.” This is a positive development as fighting for the working class isn't a footnote on a platform; it is the main guiding force behind opposition to the PQ government. This can be QS' ticket to success. If QS takes this road and brings the concerns of students and workers into the election front and centre, they can shift the discussion away from this divisive debate on the charter and provide a point of reference for the labour movement, splitting the unions away from the PQ.

There has been a great amount of confusion in the labour movement in relation to the Parti Québécois government. There has actually been concerted attempts by some union leaders to stop the criticism of the provincial government and instead, to focus their attacks on the federal Conservatives. This is in spite of the fact that the PQ is pursuing a very similar economic program as the Harper Tories. The charter definitely has added to this confusion with some unions coming out against the charter and others supporting it. When workers and youth are in dire need of a fighting leadership to combat the attacks of the bosses, the labour movement has been derailed and divided by this charter debate.

The response to Péladeau's candidature from the unions is one of surprise and denunciation. The FTQ, the province's largest union, has said that his candidacy is a "catastrophe” for Quebec workers, and that he is “probably one of the worst employers Quebec has ever known.” The CSN has also expressed their disgust and said that this is a sure sign that the PQ has no plans of reforming the labour law in the province. The union president said, "If the Parti Québécois refuses to do this, we will draw our own conclusions.” While there are a few notable trade unionists running for QS in this election, the position of the unions still remains unclear and they have yet to come out in favour of QS as the only pro-worker anti-austerity option. What is clear is that the PQ's association with Péladeau severely damages any loose links that the PQ has enjoyed with the union bureaucracy, which opens up the possibility of the unions abandoning the PQ and openly joining and mobilizing for Quebec solidaire. The fact that QS is to gain from this situation has even been mentioned by many bourgeois political commentators.

The student movement

In the recent period, the Association for Student Union Solidarity (ASSÉ) which led the student strike in 2012 has come out with an anti-governmental anti-austerity campaign. Far from being surprised by the rightward drift of the PQ, the ASSÉ has focused on mobilizing against the government's austerity since its election. ASSÉ has correctly denounced the charter as a "smoke screen for austerity" and has launched a campaign called “Traîtres chez nous” (“Traitors among us”) — a humorous play on the popular slogan from the Quiet Revolution, "Maîtres chez nous" (“Masters of our own house”). This campaign is coupled with pictures of PQ ministers and a list of all of the austerity measures they have implemented. On top of this, ASSÉ schools are currently undergoing general assemblies and votes for a one-day strike and demonstration against the government's austerity, scheduled for Apr. 3, right in the home stretch of the election.

Unfortunately, when asked about the election, the typical response from ASSÉ is that “elections don't change anything” and “the polls are a trap”. It must be mentioned that during the last election this actually contributed to the ability of the Parti Québécois and their bureaucratic friends in the FEUQ/FECQ, to gain a significant portion of the “red square” vote. It was even subsequently admitted by ASSÉ leader Gabriel Nadeau Dubois that the CLASSE (the enlarged ASSÉ during the strike) was unable to take the electoral context into account and respond to the honest desire of hundreds of thousands of students who saw the elections as a chance to defeat Charest. Lets not make the same mistake, comrades!  At the time, we warned the leadership of ASSÉ about the dangers of a leaving the PQ to pick up the anti-Liberal sentiment from the students — a warning that has come to pass:

“Yes, let’s defeat Charest! However, we cannot trust the PQ, who will only adopt the same austerity. The only party fighting for free education is Quebec solidaire. The best way to ensure the defeat of the Liberals and a victory for the free education party is not to get off the streets. Let us continue the mobilization as the only way to win in both the election and the wider struggle! Let us get active and turn QS into the political voice of the mass movement of the youth.” — The lessons of the Quebec student strike: Where now for the student movement? (22 Aug. 2012)

It is not enough to know what we don't want. We need to fight for what we want, and reach out to the masses who are struggling against austerity and looking for direction. ASSÉ should join with QS and press for free education, in addition to making opposition to the charter central to the party's message.

This election places great dangers for the labour movement on the table but it also places great opportunities before us. Now, more than ever, it is urgent that the labour movement organize a fight back against the PQ.  The unions in Quebec organize over 40% of the workforce and represent a huge power in Quebec society.  Moreover, the unions are squarely in the bosses’ crosshairs, targets of the cuts being pursued by the capitalist parties. Vocal opposition alone will not protect workers from the attacks of the PQ government; what is needed is active mobilization during the elections. With the PQ showing their true colours, this situation is a perfect opportunity for Quebec solidaire and the labour and student movements to work hand-in-hand to undercut them from the left and beat back the attacks of the bosses in Quebec.

As business leaders in Quebec continue to push for austerity, and the politicians continue to distract and divide the workers with this debate on the charter, the prospects for this election are grim if an alternative isn't created. A majority PQ government would be a complete disaster for anglophone and francophone workers and students alike. And we cannot forget the hated legacy of the Liberals. The third-place CAQ, headed up by millionaire François Legault, is an even worse prospect for Quebec’s working class.

The position of the labour movement is still unclear. What will they do this election to fight austerity and the attacks on the labour movement? It is the task of the labour and student movements to join Quebec solidaire, push their demands and transform the party into a genuine voice of the workers inside the parliament. Only this, combined with mass mobilizations on the streets, can effectively combat the bosses’ agenda on the streets, in the workplaces, and at the ballot box.

Source: Quebec elections 2014: Defeat austerity and the charter!