I am fond of griping that Canadian politics always seem to become most interesting when I am out of the country. I was away at university in New Jersey when the wily Prime Minister of my childhood, Jean Chrétien, was supplanted by his restive deputy, Paul Martin; when the sponsorship scandal terminally weakened the Liberal Party’s grip on federal power; when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a minority government in 2006; and when the Tories finally won a majority, and the NDP supplanted the Liberals as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, last year. (I was here, mind you, to witness the Opposition coalition power play of December 2008, but of course that died pathetically on the vine.)
Now, briefly back from my second year of law school, I hear that Quebec student unions have organized ongoing street protests and a province-wide “strike” in opposition to the five-year increase in university tuition fees advocated by Jean Charest’s Liberal government. To be clear, I slip the word “strike” into quotation marks because the very notion of students “striking” is rank silliness. It is typical of the fatuous thinking that is so commonplace on the hard Left. Strikes are for people who temporarily abandon their work posts in the compensated labor force to protest unfair pay or working conditions. Such actions directly impact economies in the short term, by hampering productivity and so on. University students accomplish no such thing when they play hooky from school. A truant is a truant, however politically motivated.
The mounting demonstrations have seen vandalism, attacks on bystanders and police and the deliberate disruption and obstruction of classes by some protestors. The movement has staked its claim on the grounds that during the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s youth were promised that higher education would one day be completely free, and that the tuition hike will risk making higher education unaffordable for many of them.
As a young, politically motivated Quebecer, I totally reject the movement’s agenda, primarily because the proposed reform is an entirely reasonable one. It would increase annual university tuition from a mere $2,168 to a mere $3,793—and incrementally at that, over five years. At the end of that period, Quebec students would continue to pay the lowest tuition fees in all of Canada, as they currently do. As a practical matter, I am deeply skeptical of the claim that most Quebec students and their families truly cannot afford to pay less than $4,000 a year for university. Many of my former high schoolmates—most of whom were not wealthy by any definition—earned almost that much in a single summer of near-minimum-wage work. The fee increase will be introduced in $325 annual increments that amount to less than an extra $6.25 a week—about the price of a single drink at most of the pubs the protesters frequent.
As a matter of principle, I do not think it at all unjust to expect students—and, again, their families—to shoulder no more than 17% of the cost of providing them with higher education. University is both expensive and valuable, a proposition from which students stand to gain immensely in their careers. It is only fair to expect the cost of post-secondary schooling to be borne at least in part by its primary beneficiaries. If some students truly cannot afford to pay under $4,000 a year, then the government should aim more of its education funding at them specifically. Indeed, the Charest Government has already planned to do just that, funneling bursary money toward lower-income families. Let affluent Quebecers shoulder more of the burden of educating their children. If they can pay heavier taxes than the rest of us due to their greater wealth, surely they can pay more to put them through university. Such means-based education funding is no more unjust than progressive taxation is.
I harbor similar doubts about the protesting students’ claim that the tuition hike will make university less accessible to them and their schoolmates. Young Quebecers are 12% less likely to go to university than their counterparts elsewhere in Canada at present, before the fee increase and while already paying the lowest tuition in the country. It seems that keeping higher education dirt-cheap is no guaranteed way to maximize participation in it. According to Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller of the Educational Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, cultural and psychological factors—such as familial and community expectations and students’ own career ambitions—have a far greater impact on the likelihood that youth will attend and complete university.
Had Charest proposed to hike tuition up to, say, $10,000 a year at one fell swoop, my perspective would be quite different. It would arguably have been unfair to expect Quebecers to adjust to that drastic an increase in the financial cost of attending university, especially had it not been gradually phased in. Of course, no Quebec government would ever have dared implement such a jarring change to a cherished social-democratic entitlement in this fabled land of “solidarité.” Instead, Charest has brought in a measured, reasonable and gradual change that is probably too modest to make a meaningful difference in Quebec’s sorry public finances as it is…and even this has prompted Quebec students to take to the streets!
Then again, let me be careful with my use of the term “Quebec students,” which risks leaving entirely the wrong impression. It appears that this movement is far from representative of the majority of university students across the province. Last month, for example, I read on The Globe and Mail’s website that only about 165,000 of the province’s more than 400,000 post-secondary students had gone on “strike.” Moreover, university faculties and student unions do not require unanimous consent when voting to strike, further diminishing the proportion of Quebec’s overall student body that ascertainably belongs to this movement.
At any rate, even if a clear majority of Quebec students do sympathize with the protestors, that still does not vindicate their stance. When taxpayers pull most of the weight of students’ tuition, elected representatives are within their rights to cut back on that assistance where necessary, in the name of fiscal health. It is understandable that this would irk many students, but their ire is still misguided. Whoever has the gold makes the rules; whoever foots the bill for one’s education has the power to call the shots, at least to some extent. Going to school on the government’s dime necessarily means giving up some freedom to determine one’s educational destiny to the state.
Student union leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is on record as commenting that “the Charest Government seems to have a complicated relationship with democracy.” This was nonsense. No facet of public policy is—or should be—decided in the streets, where only the noisiest slice of the population will be able to make itself heard. Ultimately, the political process is the only channel through which dissenters should be able to thwart the government’s agenda, for that is the only place where the whole society is systematically represented. It is anything but democratic for a minority faction to use strikes (real or imagined), violence, and other such tactics to intimidate a duly elected government into changing course.
“We are not only fighting for our own little interests…[or] not to pay more to go to school,” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois told the CBC’s Mark Kelley in late May. “We are fighting because we think this government is making bad decisions for the future.” He averred that the movement had expanded to oppose “all the austerity measures that were put by the Charest Government in its last budgets.” Even if this is true, the streets are still no place for the province’s population as a whole to influence public policy. That policy is written in the National Assembly, where the legislators who vote for or against them represent the ridings where these student protestors live. The students should have taken their fight there from the start, making those MNAs—and especially Liberal backbenchers—fear for their seats if they did not change course. That is how change should be made in a democracy.
(Of course, such change would be easier to bring about if Canadian politics did not suffer from such stifling party discipline. Then the student activists could have lobbied Liberal backbenchers to break with the party line and vote against the tuition increase. Perhaps then the protestors would have felt less need to demonstrate in the streets…but let me end this digression. I’ve spilled enough ink on the subject of executive power and party discipline already.)
This is one reason why I mostly disagree with those who offer mealy-mouthed praise for the students’ motivation to participate in politics. Montreal Gazette columnist and humorist Josh Freed, for example, told Mark Kelley: “I’m like a lot of Quebecers; I sort of have some sympathy for the kids, because they’re showing some social conscience. For years, we’ve said, you know, students don’t get involved in anything; they’re selfish, they’re greedy, they look after themselves, they’re not socially engaged. In the last year, we’ve seen Occupy, we’ve seen this student rebellion…a lot of these kids think they’re changing the world. They might be misguided, but their hearts are in the right place.” To me, this is faint praise indeed.
To begin, I challenge portrayals of the students as purely selfless, altruistic and idealistic. Pace Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, they are marching mainly to keep their own costs down—i.e. to keep more money in their own pockets. In other words, they are largely—and ironically—motivated by the same self-interest that underpins the capitalist system that so many of them purportedly despise. Secondly, the students’ misunderstanding of free-speech principles and their attempts to circumvent the democratic process cancel out whatever “attaboys” they may have earned by becoming politically active. Thirdly, the old complaints about young peoples’ political apathy were always overstated in the first place. The “nuclear freeze” and anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s and the “anti-globalization” movement at the turn of the century are cases in point. (For the record, those were much better reasons for youth to take to the streets than a $1,700 tuition increase over five years.) The real apathy problem concerned young people’s reluctance to engage with the organized political party process and their preference for extra-legislative methods such as street protests. Clearly, today’s young Quebec activists have not exactly broken that mold.
The students have the right to make their displeasure with the government known publicly, of course. Yet nothing is more aggravating about this controversy than the students’ habit of decrying any police effort to quell their more disruptive tactics as violations of their free speech rights. The right to express oneself is not a license to prevent other students from going to school, to stop professors from teaching, or to block workers from going to work. Sabotaging the orderly conduct of business—the very activity that finances the students’ matriculation, the hard work of others on which they depend for their educations—is not protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nor does Canada’s Constitution grant students the right to demonstrate anywhere or at any time that they please. Municipal authorities have the legitimate power to circumscribe the geographic range of the protests so that they do not prevent law-abiding citizens from going about their daily business.
Recognizing this, the Charest Government has introduced special legislation to bring an end to the disturbances. Bill 78, which is set to expire in July 2013, reportedly prohibits all demonstrations of more than 50 people unless participants first notify police of their locations and routes. It also bans demonstrations within 50 metres of the grounds of universities and CEGEPs in the province, and forbids education employees to strike in ways that stop students from attending classes. The passage of this law has had the predictable effect of fueling the demonstrations with a renewed sense of outrage. It has only strengthened the movement’s hand by further enabling its leaders to claim that they are standing up for fundamental freedoms against a repressive government. Most importantly—unlike the government’s previous approach to the protests and quite unlike the proposed reform itself—Bill 78 has raised legitimate civil-liberties concerns. The restrictions on the freedom to march are the most odious and the vesting of added powers in the police is highly troubling. Police officers are only human, and after months of often violent confrontations with wrongheaded youths, they cannot always be trusted to exercise this degree of power impartially or responsibly.
What, then, is a beleaguered Premier to do?
Charest could try taking a page from Margaret Thatcher’s book. She faced down a year-long coal miners’ strike in the mid-1980s that could have brought down her government—as labor unrest in the 1970s had mortally wounded previous British governments—and emerged victorious. She did so by stockpiling enormous reserves of coal and oil in advance to keep Britain’s economy moving once the strikers left their posts. She ordered police to restrain union picketers who often used violent tactics to try to prevent dissident miners from going to work. She forcefully denounced the strikers’ efforts to blackmail the British public by bringing the nation to a standstill in order to achieve their agenda.
Thatcher also wisely refrained from using excessively draconian methods that would have alienated both the miners who stayed at work and the public at large. She refused to take civil action against the miners’ union—which had called the strike without a national ballot of its members—so as not to alienate the working miners and other unions on whose support she depended. She intervened to stop the National Coal Board from forcing safety personnel to work in coal mines that had been closed, thus avoiding a parallel strike that would have been fatal to the government’s reforms. Last but not least, Thatcher hung tough for a solid year, staying the course in the face of stiff opposition from both the nation’s strongest union and a vast swath of public opinion that sympathized with the miners.
It can only be hoped that Jean Charest will prove to have the Iron Lady’s guts—and guile. Bill 78 is an example of government overreach that risks backfiring spectacularly. Public opinion has recently shifted in the government’s favor; the latest CROP poll has roughly two-thirds of Quebecers supporting the tuition hike and three-fifths backing the government’s general position. Charest cannot afford to alienate this “silent majority.” While the aforementioned poll also indicates that many Quebecers also favor Bill 78, this support could easily dwindle following the inevitable constitutional challenges to the law in court. The government needs to maintain the high ground, defending law and order and Quebecers’ freedom to teach, study and work; it cannot risk appearing to trample on civil liberties.
Charest should continue to support the majority of Quebec students who have opted to complete their studies as normal. The police should continue to protect professors and students who want to carry on throughout the summer semester and into the autumn if need be. Universities should be given whatever resources they need to maintain the academic calendars for the 2012-2013 school year in their originally scheduled form, even with sharply reduced attendance. Any students who remain on “strike” should simply be given failing grades that will go on their academic records. Let these youth deal with the natural consequences of the tactics they have chosen to employ. Then we will see how willing they truly are to make sacrifices for the common good.
Finally, Charest must continue making his case to the public in order to solidify their support for the reform. He should make a televised address to all Quebecers to explain the reasons for the tuition increase, the reasonableness of it and the obstinacy of the student activists who oppose it. He should draw the line at his agreement to slow down the tuition hike and to provide more generous subsidies to lower-income students—and retreat no further. Now is the time to give the student unions a Hobson’s choice: take it or leave it.
If this fails to quell the disorder, Charest can cut this Gordian knot by taking the advice of the National Post’s Tasha Kheiriddin and calling a snap election. This would, of course, entail great risks, especially given Charest’s personal unpopularity with Quebec’s electorate, the upcoming Charbonneau Commission to investigate corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, and the fact that he would be seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive mandate. Nonetheless, this would at least force the student leaders to take their case to the political process, where it belongs. It would also enable them to distance themselves from the violent agents provocateurs in their midst—and to surmount the obstacle of Liberal party discipline in the National Assembly.
Let Mr. Nadeau-Dubois and the rest campaign for political candidates who represent their agenda—or better yet, let them run for elected office themselves. Let the Parti Québécois demonstrate the real extent and sincerity of its professed support for the student unions. “Can we have a dialogue?” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois plaintively asks. “Can we have a social debate about how we finance our universities?” Yes, indeed, we can and should have that debate—in the halls of political power, not in the concrete jungle.
There is a bigger-picture issue at play here. This showdown is another facet of a burgeoning crisis that all industrialized nations will face in the years and decades to come. As birthrates decline and populations age, ever greater financial strain will afflict the social safety nets that were built on high ratios of taxpaying workers to elderly retirees. As public budgets worldwide groan under the weight of these and other increasingly unsustainable entitlements, more and more governments will cut back on their social commitments. This retrenchment of the welfare state will inevitably lead to disturbances of the social peace. Spendthrift governments will eventually reach breaking points at which creditors both foreign and domestic will refuse to lend them the money to finance cherished social programs. The cutbacks will come one way or another, and they will meet with fierce resistance from populations accustomed to leaning on government crutches.
To weather these storms, we will need to devise more efficient ways for states to fulfill their basic duties to their people. We will need to reform the welfare state in order to preserve it in some form. Efforts to do so will inevitably engender determined opposition. To overcome that opposition for the greater good, national leaders will have to acquire and hone skills of statecraft and persuasion—and muster a modicum of political courage.