October 25 marked the fiftieth day of the PQ government of Quebec. Out of the gate, Pauline Marois’ minority PQ government seemed set on tacking left, under pressure from the student movement and for their own political reasons. But the PQ are already starting to show their true colours.
The PQ began their term by announcing the reversal of the tuition fee increases that sparked months of student strikes and demonstrations that brought down the Liberal government of Jean Charest; and they repealed the reactionary bludgeon law, Law 12 (Bill 78). These two acts were huge victories for the student movement, followed by another: the maintenance of the student assistance measures first offered by Charest as an alternative to eliminating the fee hike. These victories were quickly followed by government announcements of the closure of the only nuclear power facility in Quebec, an end to a Liberal asbestos plan, and a moratorium on shale gas exploration (fracking).
Progressives could be forgiven for thinking that a new day had dawned in Quebec with the election of Quebec’s first woman premier—especially when the PQ announced it would roll back tax cuts for the rich in order to eliminate the Health Care premium. They could also be forgiven for being confused.
The PQ Finance Minister has long been on the record as supporting tax cuts for corporations. And Pauline Marois tried to unfreeze tuition fees years ago when she was Education Minister (the student strike of 1996 stopped her). The PQ is a neoliberal party. The only substantial difference between them and the Liberals is their stand on the national question. So how can we explain the seeming anomaly? In addition to responding to and trying to appease the mass pressure in the streets, the PQ has its own cynical reasons to tack left.
Despite nine years of Liberal corruption and an unprecedented, no-hold-barred campaign for strategic voting, the PQ could only get four more seats than the Liberals in the last election. Their days are numbered if they can’t turn this around.
First, the PQ is watching demographics. They know their base is aging, and they suffered a series of devastating internal crises last year. Their best hope of remaining viable in the long term is to appeal to younger voters, many of whom were involved in the strike and who have progressive ideas on a range of other issues including the environment.
Second, they have been shoring up their own base by announcing measures designed to appease their progressive members. Third, they hope to recoup losses to their left, both in terms of actual votes and in terms of political space, to Québec solidaire (QS) and Option nationale. By tacking left and testing the limits of a minority, they can point to it later and appeal for those voters to help them win a majority.
The veneer didn’t take long to fall away from the cynicism. A scant 35 days into their mandate, the PQ backed down before a backlash from the right-wing CAQ and the Liberal opposition to the tax reforms.
At budget time, it’s a safe bet we can expect them to reveal their true colours, appealing to the base of the Liberals and CAQ: corporations and the rich.
In the meantime, the PQ’s principal policy challenge—independence—remains unresolved, and likely will remain so for as long as Marois can keep it that way. The last thing the PQ needs right now is an open debate about independence that could expose the divisions inside her party between hard-line, often ethnic, separatists on one hand, and advocates of moderate compromise with empire on the other.
The PQ needs to find a way to be all things to all people—an impossible task—if they are to win a majority government in the next election.
And that election will come sooner than later; most expect it in 18 to 24 months. We should already be preparing for the next struggles against the Quebec government, with its new political stripes—and also for the next election. The student strike shows how we can beat austerity by building mass rank-and-file campaigns, and the recent gains of QS shows how this can be combined with a left electoral challenge to the joint austerity program of the PQ, Liberals and CAQ.