Is Quebec More Left-Wing?

Joe asked the other day whether it is true that Quebec is more left wing than the rest of Canada. He thinks it’s a myth. Although he helpfully debunks some false beliefs about the alleged ideological contrast between Quebec and some of the other Canadian provinces, I want to suggest that he skips over several facts that arguably entitle us to reach a different conclusion.

If you look at public opinion and voting behaviour, it is true that it is far from clear that Quebec is straightforwardly leaning to the left. In 2007, the Action démocratique du Québec and its strong libertarian wing came close to winning the election. The Conservatives made some inroads in Quebec in the 2006 and 2008 federal elections. The Coalition avenir Québec did better than expected on April 7th. The common sense/slash-the-bureaucracy discourse is popular in many suburban and rural ridings in the province. And I’m leaving aside the identity dimension of contemporary debates on social justice. As is well known, the critique of multiculturalism and of accommodating forms of secularism is strong in Quebec, although I hasten to point that it is shared, like in Europe, by part of the left.

That being said, we first need to look at social and fiscal policies in order to answer Joe’s question. What I find impressive about Quebec’s redistributive politics is that it not only survived to the 1980s and 90s, but that it is actually stronger and more efficient now than it was before. Quebec is celebrated for its affordable public daycare system (7$/day) and its relatively generous parental leave public programme. In the Centre de la petite enfance where my two kids go, children living in subsidized low-cost housing interact day after day with the children of well-off families, under the care of qualified educators. And we know that affordable childcare favours women’s participation to the workforce.

In addition to affordable public daycares, generous parental leaves and a universal family allowance adjusted to income, another policy worth mentioning is the work premium that makes work pay for low income individuals, especially for single parents. All these policies can be seen as social investments and active labour market programs, as they build up the capacities of vulnerable individuals, allow parents to spend more time with their children while they are young, or make employment pay in comparison to social assistance.

These policies are based on values such as equality of opportunity and the promotion of upward social mobility. But more solidarity-based policies were also implemented in the past two decades. The Bouchard PQ government, partly in order to build a consensus around a set of austerity measures, designed an Action Plan to fight off poverty and social exclusion. My understanding is that the combined effect of these measures is a significant improvement of the life conditions of the low- and middle-income families with children, including those benefiting from social assistance, whereas the conditions of poor individuals and childless families has not improved very much. It would be false, however, to say that the social safety net has eroded during the Bouchard-Landry and Charest governments.

In terms of fiscal policy, Quebec did not resist to the wave of tax cuts (income, corporate profits, dividends, capital gains, etc.) that broke on much of the West in the last decades. The last PQ government did raise the marginal taxation rate modestly for those earning 100 000$, thereby adding a fourth income threshold, but a complete review of our taxation scheme should be on top of the new PLQ government’s priorities.

Other policies such as the (insufficiently progressive) health tax and Public Prescription Drug Insurance Plan, the low university tuitions fees, and the pay equity law for women, should also be factored in when we are trying to assess how Quebec’s social-democracy is faring today. According to the evidence surveyed by political scientist Alain Noël, the policy changes since the mid-1990s “transformed [Quebec’s] model of social protection and made it not less but more redistributive.” Jean Charest’s intention to “reengineer” the Quebec state lasted for about three weeks. Building on Noël’s chapter, Keith Banting and John Myles suggest in their recent study on the politics of redistribution in Canada that “these changes increased redistribution and helped Quebec defy the country-wide trend toward greater inequality” (p. 17). I don’t think that Joe would disagree, as he wrote that what makes Quebec distinct is not that the population is more left-wing but “the fact that, over the past 30 years, the Quebec political system has been tilted to the left.” Point taken, but his scepticism also seems to extend to actual social and fiscal policies.

Lots of work still needs to be done for those who hope for greater equality, fairness and efficiency in Quebec. The very fragile state of our public finances cast a shadow on our egalitarian policies. But since progressives are often prone to think that a “neoliberal agenda” is destroying the welfare state, it is worth underlining the surprising success of the Quebec model in the past twenty years.

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