Quebec Premier Jean Charest is ruling out a spring election after striking a tentative deal with students over tuition fee hikes, potentially ending one of the province’s most disruptive protest movements in years.
After rejecting arguments that he will use the agreement as a springboard to call a vote for next month, the Premier immediately accused his main opponent, PQ Leader Pauline Marois, of lacking the leadership qualities needed to deal with issues such as the student crisis.
Mr. Charest said he will lead his party in the next election but gave no indication when it will be held. “We have not programmed an election for June,” Mr. Charest said in a news conference on Sunday, at the end of his party’s weekend meeting. “What happens to July or August? There will be an election when we are ready to have the election.”
The tentative agreement reached on Saturday after a 22-hour non-stop negotiating blitz maintained the government’s proposed tuition fee hikes of $254 a year for seven years. However, the deal also allows for an equivalent reduction in mandatory university surcharges or administrative fees that cover student services and non-academic activities. That means the students will be billed the extra tuition fees but the reduction in mandatory surcharges will cover the increase.
Mr. Charest refused to accept any blame for what has been described as one of the worst social crises in Quebec over the past 40 years.
“It takes two to tango and we can’t sit down with people if they don’t want to sit down with us,” Mr. Charest said in blaming the students for the stalemate.
But students said on Saturday that throughout the course of the three-month strike, the government repeatedly refused to negotiate with them until the impasse triggered widespread social unrest. The protest movement had grown to include wide-ranging opponents to the government’s pro-business policies and posed a serious challenge to social peace.
A demonstration in Victoriaville last Friday was particularly violent as police clashed with a small group of rioters determined to disrupt the Liberal Party’s weekend meeting. Three protesters were taken to hospital with serious injuries, including a 20-year-old college student who lost an eye when he was hit by a projectile. Three other protesters and three police officers were treated for more minor injuries. The most serious injuries were caused by a combination of flying billiard balls and rocks thrown by protesters and rubber bullets fired by police.
Mr. Charest said that student and labour organizations, which have backed the protest movement from the beginning, should have exercised more control over the 3,000 protesters.
“I am not seeking to lay blame,” Mr. Charest said. “ But when you organize a protest there is a responsibility attached to it to make sure it happens in the right way.”
Saturday’s deal calls for a committee made up of students, labour, university directors, business and government representatives to be set up to identify savings in university spending that will be passed on to the students through lower mandatory surcharges.
“We are confident that there are billions of dollars in savings to be made in the way universities use public funds,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the federation of Quebec university students, after the deal had been reached.
Daniel Zizian, president of Quebec’s conference of university rectors, said it will be up to students to make their case.
“Students have maintained there are certain deficiencies in the management of universities. But students will have to make the demonstration of what they are advancing.”
The students are also gambling that the Parti Québécois, which promised to scrap the tuition fee hike and impose a freeze, will defeat the Liberals in the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2013.
The agreement would not likely have been reached without the assistance of leaders of the province’s most important labour organizations at the bargaining table. Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, who was not part of the talks, actually came up with the idea to swap the fee hikes with lower mandatory surcharges.
“I made the proposal to Quebec Federation of Labour leader Michel Arseneau and it seems it made its way to the talks,” Mr. Duceppe said Sunday. "But I don’t want to comment further until the students have voted on the agreement.”
The ratification votes will be taken throughout the week in the colleges and universities still on strike, which include about 150,000 students.
Mr. Charest insisted that the government had reached its objective and had not caved in to the student protest movement.
“We are maintaining our policy on tuition fees … and in fairness we are going see if we can do better on administrative fees,” Mr. Charest said before inviting students to ratify the deal so that classes can resume as soon as possible. “The time has come to move on.”
With a file from Les Perreaux in Montreal