To what extent do the protesters in Quebec represent the concerns of the wider public?
Polls have suggested that fewer than four in 10 Quebeckers support the demonstrations, which began several months ago in reaction to proposed tuition hikes and have morphed into a general protest against the government of Jean Charest. Nevertheless, when the provincial government passed emergency legislation a few weeks ago limiting the protesters' right to assemble, the public was largely unimpressed.
The manifs casseroles, as the protests are known, may not represent the whole province, but they are expressing a feeling of discontent that many Quebeckers share. The Environics Institute Focus Canada survey finds that Quebeckers are among the most dissatisfied of all Canadians with how things are going in the country today.
Not surprisingly for a population with strong social-democratic leanings, Quebeckers believe government has a role to play in improving things. Two-thirds agree that governments are essential to finding solutions to the problems facing the country. Nine in 10 agree that governments should actively find ways to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.
But the fact that Quebeckers see a significant role for government does not mean they believe government is playing that role successfully. Two-thirds of Quebeckers consider the current system of taxation unfair to average citizens – above the national average – and more than half believe governments are almost always wasteful and inefficient – the highest proportion in the country. Many Quebeckers also doubt that governments are doing enough to keep business in line: A third of Quebeckers believe there is not enough government regulation of business in Canada, compared with 15-20 per cent elsewhere in the country.
In short, our survey data suggest it is not just the protesters who are impatient with the status quo and hoping for a change.
Our analysis of the social media discussion around #ggi (the grève générale illimitée, or general strike) lends further support to the idea that the protesters are not alone in their concerns. More than 30,000 individuals have issued half a million tweets using the #ggi hashtag. Notably, the Twitter conversations are about more than tuition: They include many expressions of discontent with the quality of democracy in Quebec and with the overall openness of the government. Even if the government believes the protesters' demands regarding tuition fees are unreasonable, it would do well to pay attention to the ancillary conversations about its responsiveness to public concerns.
While Quebec citizens are abuzz discussing these issues online, the Charest government is curiously absent from the social media circle. Needless to say, its absence does little to combat the impression that it is out of touch.
Preston Manning recently said that "the current expectation of open government is that government will make a lot more information available to people … and seek advice and consultation from a much broader range of people. How all that will work out is still an open question."
The former Reform Party leader surely differs in many ways from the average Quebec protester, but the question of how to balance public input with the ability to govern is one that governments will have to reckon with. As social media use continues to grow, it seems unlikely that the demand of citizens to be heard between elections will soon fade away. The question is not just whether governments will open their coffers, but also whether they will open their ears.
Tony Coulson is group vice-president, corporate and public affairs at Environics Research Group. Eric Steedman is a co-founder of Nexalogy Environics, a social media intelligence firm in Montreal.