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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

It's little wonder protests follow difficult decisions in Quebec Add to ...

It doesn't take much for Quebec's students, trade unionists and artists to hit the streets in protest. As in France, demonstrating is part of Quebec's political culture of dissent: democratic and law-abiding, headline-grabbing and sometimes surprisingly effective.

Demonstrators of the habitual kind picked up their placards when former Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard tried to rein in government spending. Students have periodically displayed their well-rehearsed dissent against higher tuition fees, thereby keeping them by far the lowest in North America. These days, the streets are full again, as demonstrators take on the latest budget from Premier Jean Charest's Liberal government.

That budget was the toughest in recent memory. It did what Quebec governments had systematically refused to do for a long time: reduce the increase in spending to 2.8 per cent from 4.6 per cent and raise revenues through a medical-visit fee, a sales-tax increase of two points and, later on, higher hydro rates.

The budget, in the words of many Quebec commentators, struck many "sacred cows" all at once in an attempt to get a grip on the province's fiscal situation by eliminating its deficit and slowing down the growth in its debt, the highest in Canada.

Much of what the Charest government is trying was proposed a while back by a group of prominent Quebeckers of different political persuasions. They published a document called " Pour un Québec lucide," and were quickly nicknamed the " lucidistes." The best known was none other than Mr. Bouchard.

They tried to shake up Quebec public affairs by pointing to the province's burgeoning debt, public services that were not properly financed and the burden contemporary Quebeckers were leaving to future generations. The message was sober, sensible and ignored.

The Charest government had entered into minority-government status. The Action Démocratique du Québec, which held the balance of power, was supposed to be fiscally conservative but acted like a traditional opposition party. It opposed rather than choosing to work toward getting a grip on the province's finances.

Re-elected with a majority, Mr. Charest finally gave approval for Finance Minister Raymond Bachand to proceed with the kind of budget that has protesters in the streets - and has sent his government's popularity plummeting. According to a Léger Marketing survey published this week in Le Devoir, 77 per cent of Quebeckers are unhappy with the government. Support for the Liberal Party has dropped to 30 per cent and only 23 per cent among francophones.

Predictably, the cacophony against the budget is a mixture of noise, ideology and incoherence. A lot of protesters want to "tax the rich," except that Quebec doesn't have enough people who fall into that loosely defined category. Even if higher taxes were imposed, they would raise a small fraction of the revenue Quebec needs - 40 per cent of Quebeckers do not pay income tax at all. That's one reason (sound economics being another) that the sales tax is rising two points.

A very old refrain in Quebec is to blame the federal government, which this budget predictably does. It whines that Quebec should get a bit more than $2-billion for harmonizing its provincial sales tax with the goods and services tax, and complains about caps on equalization payments and sundry other federal shortcomings.

Blaming Ottawa for Quebec's woes is part of the province's political culture, and is therefore irresistible for a Quebec government, including Mr. Charest's. It's little wonder, therefore, that when even a nominally federalist premier expresses nothing but criticisms and disappointments about Ottawa (and by extension the federal system), ordinary Quebeckers come to believe that they are being somehow jobbed.

Believe it or not, opinion polls consistently show that Quebeckers think their province contributes more money to the rest of Canada than vice versa, whereas in fact more than $8-billion is transferred to Quebec in equalization payments alone, and about twice that amount in total.

Mr. Charest spent very little political capital preparing Quebeckers for the fiscal restraint and increased revenues the province's finances require. Indeed, on one occasion, he grabbed $900-million in federal equalization in the last week of an election campaign and announced a tax cut, something now being obliterated.

Lesson: If political leaders don't try systematically to explain hard truths to the public, most of whom always prefer easy solutions, it's little wonder that the reaction will be bad when difficult decisions are made.

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