Quebec is known for swift and drastic shifts of popular opinion. From the election of the first PQ government, to the rise of the ADQ and the Orange Wave, public opinion in this province is prone to sudden reversals.
The results of the most recent poll, an online survey of 1000 Quebecois conducted between May 23 and 25 by CROP for Radio-Canada, seem to suggest we are in the midst of such a dramatic swing.
When CROP was last in the field, on May 17 and 18, they found that a whopping 68% supported the government's proposed tuition increase, with only 32% supporting the students. The same poll found 66% supported a "special law" to help end the crisis.
The poll was roundly criticized for asking respondents about a law which had yet to be introduced, and was at that time an unknown quantity. Criticism was also levelled at its methodology. That poll, and the most recent one, were conducted using a representative online panel, which was not randomly selected and as such cannot be assigned a margin of error.
Fast forward six days, through a civil-liberties-crushing special law, the largest protest in Canadian history, and mass arrests of over 700 people, and the results are stunning.
The latest poll did not ask the same question, but instead asked who respondents felt was to blame for the crisis. 44% placed the blame on Jean Charest's ailing government, while only 36% blamed the students. On the question of what should be done with tuition fees, the poll found 45% supported indexing them to the cost of living, 13% thought they should be frozen at current levels and 11% thought they should be abolished. Only 27% thought they should be increased beyond inflation. Add that up and 70% of the population are now opposed to the Charest government's proposed increases.
In a period of six days, support for the proposed increases to tuition has gone from 68% to 27%, a drop of 41 percentage points.
Unsurprisingly, the poll found that 60% were opposed to Loi 78, with 42% being strongly opposed. 30% supported the law, with 11% strongly supporting it. This is a drop of 36 percentage points in support for Loi 78, but given that the first poll was conducted before details of the law were public, that's not as surprising.
The poll also found that 49% believed mediation between the government and student federations was the best way to resolve the dispute, coming in far ahead of a new election, a moratorium or a summit on university financing.
When asked if the student federations and government had been negotiating in good faith, both received failing grades. 48% thought the government had been negotiating in bad faith, over 37% who disagreed, while 58% thought the same of student federations, with 26% disagreeing. 50% did not have faith in either the government or students to resolve the conflict, while 25% had more confidence in the government and 16% more faith in student federations.
Given that both sides have been adamant that they will not back down from their demands, this is hardly surprising.
A friend commented that this showed people "hated Charest, but hated the students more." I think he's off the mark. Although there is clearly a warranted pessimism that there will be a swift end to the strike, I imagine 9% more people have greater confidence in the government to resolve the issue because 70% now want the government to make major concessions. People expect the government to fold, and as such expect that this will lead to the resolution of the conflict.
I prefer to compare polls by the same company, because differences in methodology and questions can make comparison between comapnies difficult, but if we look at the Leger poll done for the Journal de Montreal between May 19 and 21 (prior to the mass demonstration), it really demonstrates the trendline in this province.
The question asked was, given the positions of both sides ($1625 increase vs. freeze) do you support the students or the government? The poll showed an 18% shift in support from government to students over Leger's previous outing, ten days prior. However, it still left the government with 51% support, and the students with 43%.
The change from 51% supporting the government position to 27% is a drop of 24 percentage points. In four days.
The Leger poll also found that 47% supported Loi 78, with an equal 47% opposing it. With 60% opposition, and 42% strongly opposed in the new CROP poll, we can see that opposition to the law has grown by 13 percentage points and crystalized. Those opposed tend to feel strongly about the subject, perhaps explaining the sudden popularity of the "casseroles" phenomenenon (Where Quebeckers in all parts of the province go outside each night at 8 PM to bang on pots and pans in opposition to the law)
Notwithstanding all the normal caveats about polls and their flaws, it seems clear that there is a seismic shift going on in Quebec right now. The introduction of Loi 78 was a political miscalculation of epic proportions. It contributed to hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets on Tuesday, and provoked the casseroles movement.
The protest and ongoing casseroles in turn sent a strong message to Quebeckers that all was not right. They demonstrated to those outside Montreal that this was no longer a student issue alone, but a social one which involved people of all ages. Then that crazy social solidarity I wrote about earlier this week kicked in, and people began to turn on the government en masse.
The CROP poll did not ask for voting intentions, but I will be interested to see if the next provincial poll shows improvement for the PQ, who originally proposed increasing tuition at the rate of inflation.
Assuming this is not a rogue poll, it seems clear that the Charest increase is dead in the water. Most Quebeckers now want an increase at the rate of inflation, if that. These numbers will put wind beneath the wings of tiring students, and indicate that the record for protest attendance set last Tuesday may be challenged sooner rather than later.
The open question now is, will Charest hunker down and defy public opinion in the face of what will certainly be growing protests? And if Charest does offer students an increase at the rate of inflation, does it resolve a conflict which has become about much more than tuition?
While this poll holds some negatives for the students too, Quebeckers rejection of both Loi 78 and the proposed increase will no doubt have many a glass lifting tonight wherever students and their supporters are gathered.
As Rabble.ca's newly minted Special Correspondent on the Quebec student strike, you'll be seeing me in these pages every few days with all the latest from Montreal's streets. For more frequent updates follow me on twitter @EthanCoxMTL