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Notes from Quebec by Ethan Cox

Ethan Cox's picture
rabble's Quebec correspondent, Ethan Cox is a 29 year-old journo, pundit and incorrigible rabble rouser from Montreal. A former union organizer and student union executive, Ethan has also worked on a number of successful municipal and federal election campaigns, and was a member of Quebec central office staff for the NDP in the 2011 election. More recently he served as Quebec Director and Senior Communications Advisor on Brian Topp's NDP leadership campaign. He now spends his time writing for rabble, freelancing for outlets like the National Post, appearing regularly on CJAD radio in Montreal and working on a book about austerity. You can follow him on twitter @EthanCoxMtl

Quebec election: Grading the parties on their commitment to accessible education

| August 1, 2012
Quebec election: Grading the parties on their commitment to accessible education

It's been the worst kept secret in the Province for weeks, but now it's official. Quebec Premier Jean Charest will call an election tomorrow, for the 4th of September.

As the pseudo-campaign shifts into the real deal, and education seems likely to dominate a campaign Charest desperately wants to be about anything but corruption, I thought it was a good time to look at the position of each of the parties on tuition.

Free post secondary education in Quebec is estimated by IRIS to cost an additional $350 million per annum, a paltry sum which is less than 3% of the Education Ministry's annual budget. Many studies have shown that each dollar invested in post-secondary education is returned ten times over in the higher taxes paid by graduates. So this ranking assumes that education is a social good and a critical investment in our future prosperity.

Each party will be graded on its tuition proposal, and its understanding of the issue. To wit, even gradual increases are still pushing education out of the reach of many Quebeckers. Government should be working to make education more accessible as time passes, not less, as was promised by the Parti Quebecois when it first took office. The discussion should not be about percentages, but about recognition that education is a profitable investment for government, which strengthens our society.

To arrive at the percentage increase proposals, I used a time frame of seven years, and did not calculate the compounding nature of these increases. Therefore, the actual increase is likely somewhat higher in some cases.

Without further ado, welcome to rabble's inaugural Education Report Card: Quebec 2012 Edition.


Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) - 82% increase

 The Liberals sparked the student strike with a plan to raise tuition by 75% over five years. They later amended that to 82% over seven years. They have refused to negotiate in good faith with students, and when student leaders submitted revenue neutral proposals to avoid a tuition hike, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne reportedly told them the money was irrelevant (go figure) but that the government could not be seen to be backing down (otherwise known as compromising). 

For the Liberals, this is no longer about public policy, it's about sending a message to civil society and breaking the back of the nascent social movement, before it can threaten the neo-liberal direction of our government. Pride, hubris and ego are all words that apply, and Charest's attempt to play strongman with the civil-liberties-crushing Bill 78 threatens to erode the democratic underpinnings of our society.

It isn't about the money for the Liberals. God knows the failed tax cuts they have given to corporations and high income earners would pay for free education many times over. It's about misdirection. Provoke a crisis, play the saviour of law and order, and distract Quebeckers from overwhelming evidence that our government is endemically corrupt.

Their proposal would put education out of reach for many Quebeckers, and leave many more with crushing student loan debt. It's not so much that they don't understand the issue, as that they don't care. As they play their cynical games, the people who elected them suffer.

Congratulations Liberals, you are the gold standard for failure on education policy.



Parti Quebecois (PQ) - 21% increase

The PQ's position on education can be difficult to nail down. They wore the red square of solidarity with striking students, but then removed it. They promised a tuition freeze, but then changed their mind. As it stands now (and it may change tomorrow) the PQ is proposing indexing tuition to inflation. Assuming an inflation rate of 3%, as it was last year, that would mean a 21% increase in tuition over seven years.

It's the most reasonable proposal of the three major parties, but they too miss the point that education is both a social good and a sound investment. Moreover, it's hard to shake the feeling that Pauline Marois and her party are more opportunistic than principled when it comes to education policy. Their repeated flip flops do nothing to inspire confidence that they will keep their word when in government.

Bottom line? They too want to make education more expensive and less accessible, but they'll do it more gradually than the Liberals. They are the lesser of two evils, but that isn't saying much, is it?



Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) - 65% increase+

 Francois Legault's CAQ are trying to stake out the middle ground in this election. Languishing in third place, they want to portray themselves as a compromise of sorts between the PLQ and PQ. In this context they released a proposed "solution" to the tuition issue today which at least two newspapers trumpeted as "middle ground" in their headlines. Unfortunately, it's nothing of the sort.

They propose to raise tuition by $200 annually over five years. The Toronto Star described this as "significantly less" than the PLQ proposal of $254 annually. It does add up to a 65% increase, rather then the Liberals 82%, but there's a catch. Legault would make up the shortfall by cutting education tax credits, which means he would be taking the same amount out of student pockets by different means.

Student leaders did offer to eliminate education tax credits in exchange for a tuition freeze during negotiations this spring, but that was an entirely different context. These tax credits are a regressive tax measure, and as such poor public policy, but they should be replaced with better public policy, not worse.

Legault may have put lipstick on the pig, but the truth is that his "solution" is nothing more than a well dressed version of Charest's plan.


Quebec Solidaire (QS) - 100% decrease (Free Education)

 As the PQ flailed around this year, twisting themselves into contortions trying to support the students without supporting them too much, the co-leaders of QS were notable for how comfortable they looked in their own skins.

They put the red squares on before the strike began, and they have never taken them off. Co-leader Amir Khadir has been arrested alongside student demonstrators, seen his house raided and watched his daughter carted off to jail for participating in student protests which blocked the Jacques Cartier Bridge. 

Unlike PQ leader Pauline Marois, who looked confused, afraid and desperately out of her element when she joined a casseroles earlier this year, Khadir and fellow co-leader Françoise David are not pandering for votes. They believe in what they're fighting for, and they've been fighting for it their entire lives. They are not politicians joining the social movement, they are members of that movement, joining politics.

Their proposal is clear, simple, and far more honest than the other parties: they want all education to be free. How to pay for it? Well we could re-institute a 0.98% tax on the capital of financial institutions which Charest scrapped at the end of 2011, that would pay for free education with $163 million left over. Or we could restore the tax on business capital which Charest abolished. That one would pay for free education two and a half times over.

In fact, between 2000 and 2008 our government reduced its revenue by over $10 billion, most of that in tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Those tax cuts failed to provide the promised jobs and stimulus, instead lining the pockets of the already rich. They were also unnecessary. Quebec's corporate tax rate was already lower than places like New York State, Texas, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and California.

Recoup even a fraction of that wasted money, and free tuition goes from a pipe dream to a reality. QS would make it so.


Parti Vert du Quebec (PVQ) - 100% decrease (Free Education)

The Greens also understand the importance of education, the fallacy of arguments that we can't afford it, and the short-sightedness of increasing tuition to the Canadian average, which would reduce enrollment by 11%. They propose completely free education.

Unfortunately words on paper, while great, don't compare to the active engagement of a party like QS. Leader Claude Sabourin is mostly invisible, and if he's donned a red square no one knows about it.

Their ideas bring their ranking up, their lack of follow through, visibility or active engagement drop them back down.



Option Nationale (ON) - 100% decrease (Free Education)

 ON are also for completely free education, although they would attach a somewhat vague and troubling condition that graduates live and work in Quebec. That aside, they have an admirable commitment to accessible education and, thanks to leader and sole MNA Jean-Martin Aussant, more visibility than the Greens.

The restriction on graduates leaving is unnecessary when so many highly educated professionals are on wait lists to emigrate here, and so few of our graduates actually leave. It drops their ranking a bit.



Union Citoyenne Quebec (UCQ) - 28% increase

 The newly formed and leaderless UCQ proposes a 4% annual increase, until students are paying 15% of the total cost of their education. At that point they favour indexation to inflation. Over seven years that adds up to a 28% increase, give or take. These folks have gumption, if little experience, but they really missed the mark here. They want to present themselves as a centre-left alternative, but would raise tuition by more than the PQ are proposing?



Follow me on twitter for obsessive coverage of the Quebec election and return of the student strike: @EthanCoxMTL



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