After Jean Charest promised and failed to re-engineer the Quebec state in 2003, many lost hope that the Quebec Liberal Party could deliver a smaller, smarter government. And yet, those around and behind Premier Philippe Couillard today in 2014 are pushing for just that.
This past weekend, the Quebec Liberal youth wing met in Lennoxville for its annual policy convention. Known for proposing far-reaching changes, the young Liberals form the vanguard of those advocating reform to Quebec’s nanny state.
The youth wing supports privatizing the Société des alcools du Québec, abolishing Quebec’s anachronistic CEGEP system and accommodating a larger role for private health care.
It has also suggested raising the speed limits on Quebec’s roads, debated lowering income taxes (to be followed by a rise in sales tax) and encouraged the exploration of our natural resources.
What’s more, it has proposed prioritizing the most job-skills-qualified immigrants over those who meet language requirements, a move that would help the economy and relieve our welfare system. Perhaps most significantly, it has proposed ending the bureaucratic welfare system by replacing it with a simpler guaranteed minimum income.
These bold, refreshing proposals are exactly what Quebec needs to get back on track. Not only would they aid the consumer, but they would also revamp the economy and simplify the citizen’s relationship to government. Students would especially benefit, being able to bypass a junior-college degree of little value in the rest of North America, thus allowing for a greater focus at the CEGEP level on job training.
Call it Re-engineering 2.0.
Premier Couillard has distanced himself from some of the proposals. That’s fine, but it does not mean that some of these changes shouldn’t come during his mandate.
Couillard is realistic. He understands it is necessary to move slowly on big changes. His current focus is on balancing the budget by cutting spending, but it is plausible that larger reforms are in the cards. After all, young Liberals make up one-third of the party’s delegates at full-party conventions. At minimum, the youth wing’s ideas will help sway the debate toward reform.
The next four years are optimal timing for Couillard to push for a re-engineered Quebec state — a luxury that was unavailable to Charest. When the latter took office, unions were strong and the province had not yet suffered through the recession.
Today, however, thanks to the Charbonneau Commission, Quebecers are aware of widespread union and other corruption and they still lack confidence in the economy. It’s hard to keeping looking at the SAQ and Hydro-Québec as vital state institutions — as they once were — when the cost of alcohol across the border is half of what it is here, and when Hydro keeps charging more for electricity. What would a little competition hurt?
The timing for Couillard is also ideal because his stars align with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume. Both have taken on municipal pension-plan reform, and stood solidly by Couillard and his new government’s Bill 3, even as they take on the unions. Coderre, a former Liberal member of Parliament, has surprised many with his defence of the taxpayer in everything from municipal projects to union scare tactics. There is also no question that Couillard’s relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper is much healthier and ideologically congruent when compared with that of his predecessor.
In the present environment, Couillard has the opportunity to take the province on a path that would benefit all Quebecers. As a politician who understands the limitations facing his government, we should expect any reforms to be advanced slowly. But with enough public backing, Quebec may see better days ahead.
Please, Mr. Premier, listen to the young Liberals.
Tom Kott is CEO of Prince Arthur Herald, a bilingual online Montreal student news organization.