Why Vote Against the Québec Government Offer and Continue Student Strike

Since Saturday, some people have come up to me expressing their delight a strike that is finally over, now that a negotiated agreement has been made between the government of Québec and striking students. My reply is that “nothing can be further from the truth.” Here’s why.

“Education is not for sale. Yes to the general strike.” Photo March 22, 2012 by David Widgington.

1) Government Insincerity & Incompetence

The most obvious reason for rejecting the offer is that there is nothing in the so-called “agreement” that addresses the tuition fees nor offers any proposal for reducing the 82% tuition increase over seven years. The “agreement” that students are voting on this week, proposes to end the crisis with the establishment of a Provisional University Council (PUC), whose mandate would be to make recommendations to the Minister of Education by 31 December 2012 about “the optimal utilization of universities’ financial resources and show, where they exist, recurrent savings that can be freed.” These potential (but not guaranteed) savings would not reduce tuition increases but would instead transferred to diminishing the $500-$800/year user fees universities have been allowed to increase over the last few years. If no savings can be “freed” then status quo prevails. As a temporary measure, $125 in user fees will be reduced to compensate for the tuition increase during the 2012 fall semester. At the beginning of the strike, Premier Jean Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp argued for tuition increases to resolve university underfunding. Their offer now claims that universities have more money than they need, allowing them to squander millions on severance packages, luxurious promotional trips and marketing campaigns.

This 19-person Provisional Council would effectively audit universities to flush out administrative spending abuses. Based on the composition of the Provisional Council (six university rectors, four union members, two people from the corporate sector, one CEGEP administrator, two government bureaucrats and four student representatives) it is doubtful that it will have any genuine motivation to criticize university spending practices and recommend budget cuts to reduce student fees. And there are no provisions that prevent universities to continue to unilaterally increase user fees. Education Minister Line Beauchamp is quoted in Le Devoir as saying, “if gains for students are to be had, they still need to be calculated and are not guaranteed,” already opening the door for the Provisional Council to declare that university spending practices have been optimized and that no money can be “freed” from the budget.

I will vote against the government’s offer because it is a pre-election smoke screen aimed at further dividing the population and improving its position in opinion polls that show 62% support for tuition increases but an even higher percentage that believes Jean Charest mismanaged the student crisis.

In June of 2008, then-Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said she would introduce a bill in the 2008 fall session of the National Assembly that would tighten governance at Québec universities as a result of UQAM’s $750 million Îlot Voyageur real estate fiasco. During each of the student protests that pass the corner of Berri street and Ontario street, demonstrators would point at the concrete skeleton that has languished, unfinished since 2008 and “boo” collectively at the symbol of the Education Ministry’s negligent management of our universities. Ironically, as Chair of the Treasury Council, member of the negotiating committee and signatory of the current “agreement”, Courchesne reveals her government’s recurring ineptitude that has not escaped the student movement and its supporters. Now, the government is attempting to offload its responsibilities to a Provisional Council that will pit students against university administrations, creating divisions in society rather than seeking genuine solutions and conciliation.

I will vote against the government’s offer because it confirms the government’s insincerity in dealing with the student crisis and its incompetence at managing public institutions.

A Montréal Bixi the day after the bixipoesie.ca action designed to oppose excessive advertisements in public spaces. The quote by Jean-Paul Sartre reads: “Every [person] must invent his [her] own path” – 30 April 2012.

2) Negotiation Trickery and Public Opinion Wrangling

Based on reports by members from the student negotiation delegations, the government instilled a false sense of urgency to the 22-hour-long talks that left student representatives without sleep for two days. At one point during the negotiations, the students were told that their issues regarding the Provisional University Council would be accepted and that they would have parity representation. It was also suggested that a moratorium on tuition increases, would be the result of the Provisional Council findings, creating a sense of victory for student negotiators. Afterwards, student representatives were negotiated with separately, modifying a few words here and a few words there, effectively diluting the offer. Then, in another flurry of urgency, individual student negotiators were reconvened to sign the document that no longer resembled what they had previously understood. It would seem the government negotiated in bad faith.

As striking students from all over Québec were either returning from Victoriaville or reading about the excessive violence at Liberal convention protest, Line Beauchamp quickly unleashed her media strategy with a press release that quotes her as saying, “To bring the current conflict to an end, we have reached an agreement between all the parties involved. I salute the respectful nature of the exchanges that have taken place during these last hours.” She wanted to show that the government had resolved the crisis, implying that a refusal from student association members would reflect student intransigence rather than their own. How the union leaders present around the negotiating table allowed this to happen is disconcerting.

I will vote against this “agreement” because the current government reviles student criticism and continues to treat the student movement paternalistically, with arrogance and contempt.

3) Government Priorities: Tax Breaks to Banks and Subsidies to Mining Corporations

I will vote against this “agreement” because the current government has never considered the student proposals aimed at preventing further privatization of higher education and reduce tuition fees without passing on the burden of accessibility to the middle class. Jean Charest’s adherence to a Private-Public Partnerships (PPP) model of good governance has allowed his government to “invest” public funds into large infrastructure projects that the private sector later manages to reap the profits. Just ask SNC-Lavalin how it works to their benefit.

One of the more interesting ideas that has been on the lips of students for months and has been absent in public debate, is the reinstatement of the capital gains tax on financial institutions. A slight 0.3% capital gains tax on financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, etc) would provide sufficient funds to freeze tuition to current rates with enough left over to effectively reduce tuition fees. A bit more could provide free tuition for everyone interested in a higher education. The Charest government actually cancelled the capital gains tax to financial institutions who continue to announce record profits, often in excess of $1 billion, every quarter. A recent Globe and Mail article, reports that “Canada’s debt-to-income ratio was 151 per cent at the end of [2011]” and will probably rise to 160%, “a similar level to that of the United States just before the financial crisis.” An increase in tuition rates by 82% over seven years, and offering student loans that are guaranteed to the banks, the Charest government is adding the debt burden to middle class households while helping banks increase their profits.

Jean Charest is handing out billions of dollars in public funds for his legacy project, Plan Nord, to build roads and extend power lines to open up northern Québec to the mining and forestry industry. The government’s $277 million subsidy to extend route 167 north of Chiboubamau, that will lead nowhere other than a future uranium (Matoush project) and diamond mine (Foxtrot project) is just one example that would alone cover tuition increases.

An adapted cover page from La Presse in reaction to the government’s May 5th “agreement”

I will vote against the government offer because it is a meaningless insult that does not adequately address any of my concerns. The “agreement” is a joke that Jean Charest is using to try to hide the fact that he wants users — Quebec citizens — to pay for access to higher education, hospitals, etc. in order to conform to his public-private-partnership (PPP) agreements. It is a joke, not unlike his remarks at the opening of the Salon Plan Nord (April 20, 2012 – Montréal), that laughs at society for allowing his government to continue to take from the public purse and give to the private vault. I will vote against the government offer because of the unscrupulous behaviour of the government who has no interest in public institutions, other than to deliver them to the private sector in exchange for the contents of a brown envelope and a lucrative seat in a corporate boardroom at the expiry of a political career.

I will vote against the government’s offer and will continue to demonstrate my discontent in the street and elsewhere. I encourage all students, despite your position on tuition fees, to look past the tuition increase debate to see it as a symptom of a larger social malaise that needs realignment. I invite the 200,000 people who I walked with on March 22 to speak out against this “agreement”. Show your support for the student movement, which is not comprised of unfocussed spoiled youth who want everything for free – as the government and media like to portray them. It is a movement that believes, among other things, that having an educated and critical population is good for society. It would and will prevent self-interested governments from handing public property that doesn’t belong to them, over to private interests.

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