Monday, May 7, 2012

Quebec Students Strike: A Momentary Triumph of Strong Democracy over Weak Democracy

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.

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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.  

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