On the day of Quebec's last provincial election, I confessed to my readers in La Presse that I would not vote. I wrote that the five-week election campaign had been just a marketing effort masquerading as a battle of ideas and that none of the candidates running in my riding appealed to me anyway.
Boy, did I get a beating. Most of my readers were appalled, lecturing me on the importance of voting, pounding out the old slogan: Every vote counts.
Now, nine months into the Liberal Party of Quebec's majority mandate, all I can say is: Sorry, folks, but I was right. Premier Philippe Couillard did what politicians do nowadays in most election campaigns: Say as little as you can about what you intend to do when in power, stay as generic as possible in your platform, repeat the words "economy" and "jobs" as often as possible and smile while you're holding those babies at photo ops.
Nine months into Mr. Couillard's tenure, I look at the orgy of cuts imposed on government programs and, try as I might, I can't recall when the Liberals mentioned that they would cut $170-million from the province's universities (after decrying the short-lived PQ government's own $120-million cut), trim untold millions from the wildly popular parental leave program (though the Quebec Liberals have backed away from this proposal) and impose hefty fee increases to parents sending their kids to the publicly funded daycare system – some parents will see an increase of $11 a day – while they lambasted the PQ's $2-a-day hike.
The winds of austerity are blowing in Quebec – Mr. Couillard prefers the term "budgetary rigour" – in a way that was never mentioned during the election campaign last March and April, when it was time to talk about these matters.
The contrast between what Mr. Couillard's Liberals promised during the last election campaign and what they are doing now that they are in power has prompted my colleague Vincent Marissal, a political columnist with La Presse, to brand this contrast "un détournement de mandat," a mandate hijacking. The term seems fitting.
Before the Liberals' electoral defeat of 2012, when the PQ won a short-lived minority mandate, the party had been in power for nine years. They can hardly pretend that they had no clue about the province's finances, which were known to be in a dire state. The reality is crystal clear to me: The Liberals' inner circle knew what they wanted to cut, but chose not to say so during the election. Hard-core party loyalists will say that I am unfairly bashing the Liberal Party, so let me add that the PQ did roughly the same thing, giving Quebeckers the Disney version of what it intended to cut if it won a majority. Such is politics nowadays everywhere, with some exceptions (Mike Harris's 1995 Common Sense Revolution platform comes to mind: What Ontarians saw was what they got from Mr. Harris's campaign rhetoric.)
In Quebec, there is an added twist. Every provincial campaign is, in the end, about one choice: referendum or no referendum. The Liberals can win elections simply by repeating one thing: If you vote for us, there will be no referendum. And last winter, when business tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau entered politics under the PQ brand, energizing militants by stating clearly his desire for independence, the Liberals had a field day for the rest of the campaign, basically saying: Vote for us, or you'll have a referendum.
A student of politics might say that since 1998, the Liberals have grown increasingly lazy, policy-wise, always resorting to the referendum bogeyman to scare voters into voting for them. I am not a student of politics, I am just a lucid citizen and what I see is that election rhetoric is purely marketing, and as with marketing campaigns, the truth often lies in what is not said, in what is hidden.
Below the surface, Quebec is bracing for a brutal spring. Public-sector employees, who are bearing the brunt of these austerity measures, and who are entering negotiations for a new collective agreement, will be "mobilized," their unions keep on promising. Maybe taking to the streets is the only alternative when election campaigns mean next to nothing.