In 1995 Jean Chrétien’s Liberals faced a “debt crisis” so severe, that the Goldman Sachs economist whom the Ministry of Finance hired to assess the situation, concluded that it didn’t really exist. The Goldman-Sachs report, which suggested that our annual budget deficit could be entirely eliminated by stimulating employment, was ignored. Instead, Finance Minister Paul Martin decided to slash government spending to levels not seen since 1951, leaving a gaping 40% hole in healthcare and education transfers. By the end of 1997, the “deficit dragon” had been slain, and the government was running the first of what would turn out to be a decade of budget surpluses.
Canada breathed a sigh of relief. Now that the debt catastrophe was averted, we could start repairing our cherished social programs. According to the Liberals’ 1997 electoral platform, 50% of each surplus would go to repairing social programs, and the other half would be divided up between paying off our national debt, and funding a series of corporate and income tax cuts which almost nobody asked for. In the end, only 10% was used to restore social spending, while a full 60% was thrown away as tax cuts, thereby insuring that the programs could never be properly rebuilt.
Not surprisingly, after 15 years of continual tax cuts and chronic starvation of social programs, social spending is now at its lowest level since the 1940s. The federal corporate tax rate went from 28% in 2000 to 15% this year. Canada’s top 200 corporations now make 50% more in profit than they did in 2000, yet they pay 20% less net dollars in taxes. Tuition has been ballooning, while our public healthcare system, the pride of the nation until the mid 1990’s, has since been fraught with obscene waiting times, and chronically overworked staff.
Even though real GDP per capita (the standard measure of a nation’s wealth) has doubled since the 1960’s, we can no longer afford the social programs that seemed to wor so well nicely until the mid 1990’s.
Thus, when the Québec university students went on strike en masse in reaction to an 82% tuition increase, it struck a chord. After 15 years of having our concerns and priorities ignored by every provincial and federal government, someone was finally saying “enough”.
I PARTICIPATED IN THE BIGGEST CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE IN CANADIAN HISTORY, AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT
Sadly, despite months of massive nighty demos with tens of thousands out every night at their peak, despite hundreds of thousands out on May 22, June 22 and July 22 despite thousands out every night for weeks during the spontaneous and festive neighbourhood casserole protests, despite solidarity demonstrations all across Canada, in New York, Paris and even in Iceland, public sympathy for the protesters among Quebecers is a sad 35%, down from 43% last month. Even worse, support for a continued tuition freeze or free tuition adds up to a meagre 24%. 72% of Quebecers think that tuition should be either raise according to the governments plan, or at least indexed to inflation.
These polls reflect a very weak PR frame that the students are trapped in: The province and the country are having budget problems, our healthcare system is falling apart and we’re raising the retirement age, we just can’t afford it. Students need to be responsible and realistic and accept their “fair share” of sacrifices like everyone else.
WANTED: NEW STRATEGY
This is a narrative which can be reversed with a little strategic thinking.
The student movement in Québec has always been about the principle of a state for its citizens rather than about $1625, and the students are finally starting to act like it. The narrow focus on tuition hikes and bill 78 has now expanded to supporting and associating with other causes in opposition to “neoliberalism“ : like Algonquin natives fighting logging companies, unions fighting their corporate and government bosses, environmental causes, etc. CLASSE is currently on a tour of Québec, and Ontario, meeting students and members of neighbourhood assemblies from across the province, to learn about their priorities and concerns and to help them organize. Meanwhile CLASSE’s new manifesto is all about participatory democracy, “combative syndicalism” shared public services, and our shared environment. July’s monthly massive demo was called “Dehors les néoliberaux” (“Out With the Neoliberals”).
While this is definitely a step in the right direction, this strategy has a couple of serious flaws which I’d like to propose some E-Z solutions to:
BIG PROBLEM #1: neo-whut?
Unless you’re a radical leftist poli-sci student, you are more likely to get hit by lightning than to know what “neoliberalism” is. Even university professors don’t know what neoliberalism is. Unless your strategy involves mass hypnotism, getting your target audience’s eyes to glaze over every time you present your core message is just bad PR.
BIG PROBLEM #2: to most people, winning a war against Satan and Darth Vader seems easier than overthrowing contemporary capitalism and replacing it with participatory democracy.
As the predominant political/economic system in the world, neoliberalism is such a far reaching and overwhelming phenomenon that idea of having to defeat it makes one want to curl up and die rather get out into the streets or the voting booth. Participatory democracy is an exciting idea, which needs more attention, but in the 200 or so years from now until it becomes a reality, we need some achievable short term goals.
SOLUTION #1: pick an unpopular, reversible policy which undermines all social programs, and attack it to death.
Unlike nebulous neoliberalism, irresponsible and idiotic tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy which make social programs impossible to afford, are both easy to understand, unpopular, and reversible.
In 2007, Charest flushed $950 million per year in tax cuts down la toilette nationale, against the will 70% of Québecers. This year, in the name of budget balancing and fiscal responsibility, the Liberals announced $160 million in cuts to Montreal’s already struggling hospitals, $265 million per year in tuition increases, and have phased in a $200 per person “health contribution”. It’s not very hard to connect these dots, and students should do so at every opportunity.
TUITION HIKES IN QUÉBEC HAVE FEDERAL ROOTS AND FEDERAL SOLUTIONS
Huge tax cuts and social spending cuts at the federal level (discussed above) are also important to highlight because they equal budget cuts and fee hikes at the provincial level. Even if Amir Khadir becomes Premier of Québec in five years with a full Assemblée Nationale of 125 social-democratic Québec Solidaire MNA’s, he’ll be hard pressed not to crank up tuition, health care and daycare fees as the Harper’s plan for further reducing healthcare transfers goes into effect and puts the squeeze on provincial budgets across the country.
Further, highlighting that this is a national as well as a provincial problem sets the stage for the rest of the country to start kicking, and feeds great talking points to sister movements. In Ontario, free tuition would cost $170 per household. Meanwhile Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty just tossed the equivalent of $500 per household in corporate tax cuts out the window of the CN tower. Inspired by Québec, students in Ontario are contemplating a strike, and support for striking among students across Canada is at 62%. We have already seen impressive solidarity protests across the country; linking the Québec tuition increases to federal tax cuts, the state of public healthcare and rising tuition across the country could help turn those solidarity protests into genuine national ones.
YES, WE ACTUALLY CAN, FOR REAL!
Reversing tax cuts to pay for social programs is popular and doable. For instance, returning federal corporate taxes to the 2008 level of 19.5% has 73% support, and was part of Jack Layton’s 2011 NDP campaign platform. The NDP currently are ahead in national polls. If we elect them, and keep the pressure on, they might actually deliver on this promise, and we might have functioning social programs again. For realz.
Surprisingly, 64% of people are willing to raise their own taxes to improve healthcare and other social services. Shockingly, even 58% of Conservative voters feel this way! No one likes paying more taxes, but if they’re specifically used for social programs, people don’t mind so much, especially if the social programs actually function. That’s why people in Scandinavia of all income brackets don’t mind paying such high income taxes. This is a winning issue.
SOLUTION #2: Doctors and healthcare workers are fighting the same enemy as you: get them articulate your message so that the media actually reports it.
Students aren’t very popular right now, and reporters and columnists tend to treat them with a kind of disdain and contempt that makes one wonder if they weren’t beat up every day by university students when they were kids. Doctors and nurses however are extremely popular, and as we saw on May 22nd when hundreds of lawyers protested against bill 78, reporters treat professionals with respect and actually pay attention to what they have to say.
Fortunately for the students, the health care system is falling apart for the same reasons that tuition is rising. After 15 years of neglect, 54% of Canadians now want the option of buying private healthcare – however, that’s mostly because the Liberals and Conservatives have managed to kill any hope that the government will fix it – given the option, 94% of Canadians would prefer that healthcare be fixed via government spending. Healthcare has the popularity, and students have the energy and the ability to mass mobilize. A joint effort is a natural fit.
A PRACTICAL SUGGESTION: AN EFFECTIVE PR EVENT
Given all of the above, imagine big festive casserole demonstrations with musicians and percussion ensembles, featuring doctors, nurses and students, protesting together against cuts to social programs and against the tax cuts that make it impossible to fund them. Imagine doctor-spokespersons citing all the above statistics and more to reporters who actually report them. The message will get out. The readers and viewers will understand it. The currently unpopular student cause will be associated with the extremely popular cause of improving healthcare. The narrative of selfish and irresponsible students will be turned into a narrative of selfish corporations and irresponsible governments. If the polls turn around the NDP might actually step up and start supporting the students. The debate will begin. Healthcare workers and students in other province will be encouraged to do the same. Our students here in Québec might actually even win.
LET’S DO IT!
I have been personally trying to organize exactly such a protest for about a month now, with the goal of having the first event in Labour Day (Sept 3rd). If you have any contacts in CLASSE, FEUQ, FECQ, FIQ, SECHUM, Canadian Doctors for Medicare, or other relevant organizations, or if you have experience organizing such events and have some suggestions or advice, then by all means, get in touch with me!
Students and healthcare workers have everything to gain, and nothing to lose by getting together. Let’s make it happen now, before it’s too late.
 Neoliberalism basically means corporate globalization, i.e. Financial deregulation, free trade without core environmental or labour standards, low taxes, high tuition, minimal social programs, private health care, lots of new jails to put all the uneducated, unemployed, disaffected people in. Gay people and minorities can have full civil rights, and if they’re rich they can even enjoy them. A neoliberal government’s role is mainly to protect property and make life easier for business in various ways.