In 1997, French scientist-turned-politician Claude Allègre, then minister of education, became the scourge of the nation's teachers when he said that he wanted to "take the fat off the mammoth," referring to the country's huge and rigid education system. The teachers were a force much more powerful than a lone minister. Soon enough, Mr. Allègre left politics – and since then, the mammoth has only grown fatter.
In Quebec, where bureaucratic inflation and the people's resistance to change bear so much resemblance to France, Premier Philippe Couillard's government is tackling an even larger creature: his entire provincial public sector, the largest in Canada. This creature was born in the wake of the Quiet Revolution and grew exponentially, as successive governments benevolently fed the monster under the threat of social unrest raised by aggressive labour unions, which had the power to close schools and hospitals to obtain more money for their members and enlarge their turf.
Considering the province's staggering debt, its aging population and the fact that Quebeckers are the most taxed citizens in North America, all governments since the mid-1990s have felt the need to streamline the bureaucracy, although none could really accomplish it. Jean Charest's Liberals, at the outset of their first mandate in 2003, were determined to "re-engineer" the state, but soon Mr. Charest's plan crumbled under the weight of the opposition.
Now, Mr. Couillard's government is at it, though from a better position: The leaderless Parti Québécois is demoralized by its recent defeat and the unpopularity of its sovereigntist option, and the other opposition party, the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec, also favours austerity.
Still, Mr. Couillard is already facing some of the same hurdles Mr. Charest did: widespread accusations that the government is about to kill the "Quebec model," and steadfast resistance from the unions and pressure groups denouncing the effects the cuts would have.
The government wants to reduce the public administration's budget by $3.2-billion, a tall order that would require drastic service reductions. Nobody knows yet which programs will be hacked – possibly not even the government itself, given that it doesn't appear to have a clear direction. Two groups of experts have been commissioned to produce ideas, and even the province's civil servants are being mandated to search for ways to cut back. For now, no particular program is being targeted, except public daycares, where the ridiculously low $7 daily fee will probably be raised, at least for the families with relatively high incomes – a breach of the universality principle, which might serve as a precedent for other programs.
All bureaucracies resist change, and this mammoth is fighting back. In recent weeks, civil servants have leaked premature information about projected cuts to the news media, raising the general level of anxiety. In order to make the whole operation look bad, some middle-level managers have announced cutbacks to programs aimed at the most vulnerable, such as the meagre allowance for mentally handicapped people or the extra help provided to children who have trouble with their homework.
Faced with public indignation, the ministers responsible for these areas have overturned the measures, but the population finds itself left in the dark. Does the government have a precise agenda, or is it playing this by ear?