Yesterday saw the convergence of two events: the 100th day of the student strike marked by a demonstration of more than 150,000 people in the streets of Montreal and the opening of public inquiry into the corruption of the construction industry and its links to the financing of political parties.
Apparently, the adoption of Bill 78 as an emergency measure to calm the masses and bring order to the province has little or no effect. On the contrary, its repressive measures, which will be surely challenged in the courts, only seemed to galvanize the protests.
Unfortunately, in the flurry of media response to the students strike most of the attention is being paid to the particulars of the dispute: whether the rise in tuition fees is justifiable and if the restrictive measures concerning the right to demonstrate are reasonable.
A current theme that finds its way into many of the texts put forward by the pundits is that the students are out of line because they are refusing to abide by the decisions of a "democratically" elected government.
If I only had a dollar for every time a politician or a journalist misappropriates the word "democracy" to describe our system of governance. Holding popular elections in no way guarantees that the ensuing government is indeed democratic. In other words, popular elections are necessary but not sufficient.
In Quebec there are two considerations to keep in mind. First, looking at the distortions that electoral system creates, the current Charest government only garnered the support of approximately 25% of the electorate. Second, as we will soon find out, the financing of the major political parties is tainted by the systemic misappropriation of public funds dedicated for public infrastructure projects that find their way into the coffers of the political parties.
As a result, what is really at issue is the moral legitimacy of the Charest government.
Democracy entails the two fold dynamic of ruling and being ruled. As it stands now, Premier Charest wants to rule unilaterally without allowing his citizens meaningful participation in the process of governing other than going to the polls.
Given the perception of the widespread corruption of the political process in Quebec, especially in Montreal, the refusal of being ruled by the decision of a corrupt government is a rejection of the social contract of peace, order and good government.
Indeed, it is the absence of good government that brings about the repeated breach of social peace and order. A call to respect the rule of law does little within this context since those who pass the laws are no longer perceived to merit the obedience of the public. As could be expected and is now certainly the case in Quebec, the call for civil disobedience as a means to challenge the legitimacy of the present government grows louder every day that the strike continues.
What remains to be seen is whether a general election will remedy the situation. If the millennial generation is in the process of rejecting the political system now in place, it may take more than a simple change of government to address the problem.
To the one who wears the Crown goes the right to do what one wants when one sees fit.
In the case when the Crown resides in Parliament, this right is transferred to the Monarch's representative, the Prime Minister. Although the Prime Minister must abide by the laws of Parliament, more or less, since he is effectively the one who sees over them, he is said to possess the Monarch's gubernaculum, the mysterious power reserved for the wearer of the crown that allows the Prime Minister to declare war without the consent of Parliament, sign international treaties, prorogue parliament, and put aside the section of the electoral law which stipulates that general elections will be held on fixed dates.
Seen in this light, Bill C-38, known as the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, but to others as the Environmental Destruction Act, is not some form of skulduggery but is simply a part of the Prime Minister's gubernaculum. In other words, as long as he stays within the law of the land as one who governs with a majority in Parliament he can rule the land as he sees fit.
For example, building a pipeline quickly to transport the oil from the Alberta tar sands requires that federal law be modified. It's that simple. There's no need for discussion. Let's make the modifications and get on with it. All this talk of protecting the environment and respect for democratic principles is nothing more than trying to drum up support for a potential usurper of the crown.
Perhaps another Prime Minister would exercise his gubernaculum differently. That may be the case, but that's talk for another day.
Peace, order, and good government that's what Canada is all about.
Democracy? That's what pot smoking, Foucault reading, tree huggers, base their delusionally optimistic fantasies for the future.
As the Quebec Spring unfolds and the students continue their protests in the streets, it has become apparent that there is a big disconnect between the generations with regard to how they use the mediums of communication.
Government dominates the airwaves. Press conferences are convened; interviews are given; one to many messaging holds, and the government perspective is duly broadcast to an undifferentiated public.
Protesters, on the other hand, make use of social media. Many to many messaging reigns. No one party can dominate the exchange. In fact, the government is largely absent from the social media platforms as it tries like many of us to follow the unfolding of events in real time via Twitter and Facebook.
Even traditional media journalists set up their Tweet Decks so they can follow what's going on in the streets.
I think there is something profound going on here that indicates that the advances in Information and Communications Technology are bringing about fundamental changes to the way the body politic governs itself.
The masses can no longer be told what to think because they have largely tuned out from the traditional channels of communication: newspapers, television, and radio, in favor of getting information from networked sources.
As a result, the gate keeper function that traditional media plays in a society -- what gets said by whom on which topics -- is being swept aside by an avalanche of likes and retweets.
How this gets played out remains to be seen, but it shouldn't be taken for granted that the new emerging counter culture will be co-opted as easily as the baby boomers were.
Conspicuous consumption may give way to ecological concerns, economic growth to sustainable societies, and oligarchic rule to participatory democracy.
Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will feed himself for a lifetime. Give him a smart phone with an internet connection and he can participate in the sustainable management of the planet's fish stocks.
P.S. Shortly after I finished writing this post, the Minister of Education appeared in a press conference and announced that she was stepping down from her post and leaving politics altogether.
Electoral results last week in Europe indicate that the idea the free market capitalism and its close cousin, liberal democracy, have yet to conquer the world, leaving humanity in an omega state in which we just work out the details.
In fact, the imposition of austerity measures across Europe has woken the spectre of ultra right wing nationalism. In Greece, a neo-nazi party gained a foothold in the legislature by winning 21 seats, and in France, Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate for the far right Front National, gathered 18% of the vote.
As my history teacher used to say, "a drowning man will clutch at a dragon."
But what I find more interesting is that the French elected a socialist president, Francois Holland. Since the demise of communism, there hasn't been an ideological alternative to the pensée unique, the gospel according to Milton Friedman, his disciple Alan Greenspan, and the many followers of the dogmatic belief that if you let the greedy, lying bastards have their way, it will all work out in the end.
As we all know, the French have this particular way of doing things that can be best described as being quintessentially French. They take the ideals of the Republic, liberté, égalité, fraternité, very seriously. If I'm not mistaken, during the French Revolution they beheaded almost all of the members of their top 1%. That would explain why there isn't much opposition to the imposition of a financial transactions tax, better known as the Robin Hood tax.
Already, the minions in the global financial sector are starting to squirm. They are used to having their way. It's one thing if a small country like Greece defaults on their debt obligations -- just boot them out of the Euro -- but it's quite another when the fifth largest economy in the world starts to stray.
In a few weeks, we will learn whether the socialists will have retained their control of the French legislatures. If so, I can easily imagine the French telling their Anglo-American colleagues that when it comes to economic matters, mange d'la marde.
Fundamentally, democracy implies being ruled and participating in the ruling process. Benjamin Barber makes this point eloquently when he compares the instances of “strong” and “weak” democracies. A strong democracy is one in which the citizens participate actively in self-government before, during, and after elections, whereas in a weak democracy, citizen participation is limited to the time it takes to cast a ballot once every four to five years.
At the very best, the Westminster parliamentary system in use in Quebec and in the rest of Canada is an example of weak democracy. I would go even further to say that since it uses the first-past-the-post voting method, this system falls into the category of oligarchic rule: in other words, democracy for the few.
Presently, there exists in Quebec a crisis of legitimacy with regard to the Charest-led Liberal government. From all indications, there exists in Quebec a kick back system that uses monies allocated for public construction projects that is re-purposed to fund the campaigns of the major political parties. In short, political power is based on fraudulent electoral practices.
Yes, measures have been taken to address the problem of electoral fraud, but that does nothing to mitigate the situation that the present government lacks legitimacy.
This is the political context in which the students launched their boycott of classes to protest a 75% increase in tuition fees. Their point of contention is that if Quebec’s universities and colleges were managed efficiently, there would be no need to raise tuition fees. Given what we know of how public monies frequently wind up in the pockets of well-placed supporters of the political party in power, their point is not at all far-fetched, and, in fact, has become the turning point by which the student boycott can be brought to an end.
Yesterday, the government and the student associations signed an agreement in principle that would see the rise in tuition fees remain in place, but a standing committee will be set up that will include post-secondary students to review the management of Quebec’s post-secondary institutions. A moratorium has been put in place concerning the immediate increase in tuition fees, and any economies generated by the committee’s work will be used to reduce the obligatory administrative fees that each student must pay. By striking this agreement, the government implicitly endorses the students’ point that it wasn’t necessary to seek additional funding at the taxpayers’ expense to improve the quality of post secondary education.
The red herring in the debate, that the traditional media swallowed hook, line, and sinker, was the level of tuitions fees, which are the lowest in North America. People outside of Quebec forget that we are the highest taxed population, but the level of taxation is offset by the level of social services that we receive, like universal day care and affordable post-secondary education.
Some might argue that the students only bought themselves time. Eventually, the hike in tuition fees will kick in and the administrative economies will not be enough to sufficiently offset the increases.
That may be so, but there are two huge victories for the practice of strong democracy. The first is the realization that the people who are most affected by the decision of a weak democratic regime can mobilize and effectively challenge a dubious decision. Good government does not exclude self government. The second is that the recipients of a publicly provided service now will be active participants in the management of the educational institutions. They are no longer captured clients that can do little more than wait for the next general election to express their dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately, it took the government twelve weeks to finally wake up to the idea that it could resolve the crisis in less than in twenty four hours if it possessed the willingness to include the students in a veritable negotiation. During the violent protests, two students were gravely injured.
All of this could have been avoided if there were democratic institutions in place that allowed for continued meaningful participation by the citizenry.
In a democracy, government is something that we do together, not something that is done to us.
Students in Quebec have been boycotting classes for more than eighty days in protest of the provincial government's decision to raise university tuition fees 75% over the next five years. Images from the sometime violent demonstrations have been picked up by media sources around the world.
In the latest round, students have ignored court injunctions and maintained their picket lines, barring students and teaching staff from entering the colleges and universities affected by the boycott.
The battle lines have been drawn and neither side gives any indication that they will budge.
Over and above the question of whether the increase in tuition fees is justifiable, Quebec students pay the lowest tuition fees in North America, two larger interrelated issues are driving the conflict: the legitimacy of the government in place and the question of intergenerational social justice as the baby boomer generation offloads its fiscal disaster onto future generations.
Arguably, the entire Quebec political system is giant kick back scheme. After almost two years of constant public pressure, a judicial commission has been set up and seventeen investigations are now under the way, probably to no avail since the Premier Jean Charest appears to call a general election before the commission can begin its work in earnest.
Moreover, while colluding with the business class to milk the public purse, the government mismanaged the province's pension funds, loosing $40 billion from the value of the portfolios in one year alone, and are unable to control ever rising public health care expenditures, which are soon to comprise 50% of Quebec's budget.
In other words, faced with a dysfunctional political system that is being used to inflate government contracts for private gain and channels the lion's share of discretionary public spending to secure the quality of life for the aging segment of the population that has been quietly going along for the ride, a large group of educated, articulate, socially connected students refuse to have any part of the social contract that increases their debt load and subsequent tax burden.
Sound familiar? A similar social context brought about the Occupy movement in the US.
Looking at the prospect of the US Congress doubling interest rates on student loans in July, levels of student debt that surpass the nation's credit card debt, the inability to discharge any of the debt through bankruptcy, and unemployment/underemployment rates for recent graduates approaching 50%, it appears that America is prepared to sentence an entire generation to the status of wage slaves in order to pay down its massive accumulated debt.
In response, we may soon see the square red patch of cloth worn symbolically by a younger generation that engages in coordinated civil disobedience south of our border.