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Carlos Leitao reveals budget updateQuebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao announced Quebec’s budget update today, setting off what is sure to be a continuing series of protests against the cuts, austerity measures and fee increases. The Liberal government claims that this sort of painful pruning is necessary in order to rein in Quebec’s out-of-control finances and balance the budget. The opposition and those affected, of course, will claim otherwise.

But, cutting through the slogans and rhetoric, what does this update actually contain? The details are still pending, of course, but at first glance it reads to me as surprisingly… balanced.

The good

For one thing, the rich and corporations are being asked to shoulder the lion’s share of the cuts. This is far from a conservative approach. The budget includes such measures as suspended bonuses to senior executives, reduction in tax credits to large corporations, and added taxes on financial institutions, insurance companies and oil companies. Small and medium business, meanwhile, are getting some tax breaks.

Even the much-decried increase in daycare fees is largely limited to households making over $75,000 per year, and even that is an increase from $7 to $8. Most families will see an increase of only 30 cents per day, to $7.30. The only families who will pay the $20/day maximum are those with household incomes of $155,000 and above. The current system was very tough on lower income families stuck on long waiting lists — sometimes for years — for a $7/day spot. The updated pricing will be more expensive for wealthier families, to be sure, and might drive more of them to the private system, but this would mean the coveted public system spots will be more available to the people who need them most. Again, hardly Attila the Hun policy.

The budget update also contains a number of environmental measures, including registration fee increases for large vehicles, insurance fee premium increases for drivers, added taxes on fuel at the pump, and several green energy and anti-climate change initiatives.

The not-so-good

Yes, the general population will shoulder some of the burden, too. The most contentious austerity measures aim to trim back public sector pensions, which arguably needs to be done, but the government’s heavy-handed approach here is backfiring. Someone who has worked in a public sector job for their entire career on the promise of a certain pension should not be told, now that they’re close to retirement, that they won’t be getting what was promised. There simply isn’t enough time for them to go back in time and save more money. In addition, the MNAs had to be shamed into scaling back their own ridiculous pensions — something that should’ve been a no-brainer in “austerity” times. They did it, but kicking and screaming. However, on the whole, the private sector can’t afford to indefinitely shoulder the burden of such high public pensions, especially when the taxpayers supporting them largely have no pensions and insufficient retirement savings themselves.

The politically questionable

To make matters worse, the government has picked a fight with unions by reducing the tax credits for union dues. This will cost union members a mere $70 or $80 each on average per year, but the unions are powerful foes and are already angry about Bill 3. The last election saw many unionists break with the PQ in anger over Pierre-Karl Peladeau, the Charter of Values and a whole host of other things. But the unions and the PQ are traditional allies, and the small amount of savings that the Liberals will get from this tax credit scaleback (estimated at about $112 million per year) probably isn’t worth the political cost of driving them back together.

The bottom line

On the whole, this budget update reads refreshingly Liberal by Canadian standards, though perhaps not by Quebec ones. It’s not a Tory reward-the-rich-and-oil-companies-at-the-expense-of-everyone-else budget.

But the actual provisions may end up mattering very little when compared to the visceral opposition to the A-word: Austerity. A lot of people are angry.

The Liberals have little choice but to do their deepest cutting early on in their mandate, hoping that by the time the next election rolls around in four years, there will be enough of a recovery to shower the population with pre-election gifts. But in the meantime, it may not be pretty.

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pauline-marois-pq_sn635Just once, I would like to know what it feels like to be in a majority.

Normally, I embrace my outsider status. I’m the liberal in a room full of conservatives, the conservative in a room of Liberals. I’m a Jewish person among non-Jews and an atheist among Jews, a bilingual Quebecer in the RoC and a federalist anglo Canadian in Quebec.

I’m accustomed to being the dissenting opinion, the devil’s advocate. I love to debate and I admit I sometimes emphasize the differences just to challenge preconceived notions. In a single day, I can go from seamlessly defending the federalist position to my sovereigntist friends, then meet up with my parents for dinner and try to explain where sovereigntists are coming from and that they have some legitimate points. Even in cases where I am part of the majority, I do my best to pull myself out of the context and take up the dissenting argument, sometimes for the mental exercise and sometimes because I think it’s important. I don’t always succeed in seeing things from the other point of view, but I sure as hell try.

See, the thing is, I abhor echo chambers and mob mentality. I think we humans have a natural tendency to gravitate towards those who think and believe like we do, and in doing so, we fail to truly understand one another or to see things from one another’s point of view. And that’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous. Green Day said it best: “Down with the moral majority; I wanna be a minority.”

But sometimes, you know, it gets lonely.

Now we have Pauline Marois, who has just been elected — by the slimmest of margins — to lead a minority government. She will have to get her agenda past at least one of the opposition parties in order to prop up her government and avoid triggering an election. She spent the entire campaign trail vilifying minorities, spewing racist and xenophobic hatred against anyone with a different skin colour, ethnic background, national origin or — most of all — mother tongue. How ironic (and poetic) that after preaching so much hatred of minorities, she now gets to lead one.

In her victory speech, she appeared to have grasped the implications of this minority government situation rather quickly. Sounding amazingly conciliatory in contrast to the tone she had taken during the campaign, she congratulated the other leaders (which was met with a chorus of boos in the crowd, I might add), tempered her agenda by speaking of cooperation, and even did the unthinkable and spoke a couple of sentences in English. I don’t trust her further than I can throw a truck, but I’m sure I’m not the only anglophone who was watching last night and was actually kind of impressed.

(What happened afterwards was a horrific tragedy, appears to have been the act of a lone crazed gunman, and should be roundly and unequivocally condemned by all decent human beings no matter their political leanings. Violence has no place in politics. We settle our differences at the ballot box, not at gunpoint. Not that this post has anything to do with that. But it needs to be said, with emphasis.)

Anyway, as it turns out, my minority wasn’t as lonely as it seemed during the campaign, where all I would have to say to anyone was that I was voting for the Charest Liberals, only to be greeted with dirty looks and “you WHAT???” I joked to a few people that I would be the only person in my (solidly Péquiste) riding voting Liberal this time around. Turns out, I was one of over 5,000 in my riding… and one of 31% in the whole province. That’s right, the PQ only won 0.7% more of the popular vote than the Liberals did, and their victory hangs on a measly 4 seats. The “silent majority” that Charest had heralded months ago did not materialize, true, but the “silent minority” was much bigger than any of the pundits or pollsters predicted. Sure, many of those people held their noses and cast their vote — myself included. I’m not thrilled with the Liberals. But I think they were a damn sight better than any of the alternatives. And it might’ve been nice to feel during the campaign period that this level of support existed.

I’ve voted for the Charest Liberals when they won a majority government before. So yes, I was technically part of a majority then. But even then, I was a minority — an anglophone, a take-for-granted vote, someone who, I’m told, doesn’t “get” Quebec despite living here my whole life.

So if I’m not a majority in Quebec, surely I am in Canada, right? English-speaking, federalist, born here, not part of any visible minority group… I’m basically the definition of majority when it comes to Canada, right? Not so much. In May of last year, I watched with dismay while the rest of Canada, province after province, went Tory Blue. On that night, I felt a wave of sympathy for Quebec sovereigntists because Quebec clearly chose another path and I could understand how they felt. How we felt. Disconnected. Disillusioned. Not a part of this. A minority within our own country. I’m a heck of a lot more connected to my Canadian identity than to my Quebecois one, but I don’t understand the direction that our country has chosen to turn, and I feel increasingly out of step with it as well. A member of a centre-left minority whose political party of choice was essentially wiped off the political map last May.

It’s a curious facet of the human experience, this instinct we all have to define “us” and “them”, to create artificial divisions and to seek out those among whom we feel comfortable, secure and like family. It’s a defensive reaction, but it’s an understandable one. At heart, most of us revert to our five-year-old selves when we’re afraid. All we really want is someone to say “I understand you. It’s okay.” So we form political parties and social alliances and groups, and we band together and we find common causes to band against, and sometimes it gets really ugly, but sometimes it feels really great, too. I was disgusted by those who threw smoke bombs on the metro, but I could understand those who were out with the pots and pans this spring. I didn’t agree with them, but I understood their desire to feel like they were participating in something bigger than themselves, to feel like they belonged.

Quebec is my home. I was born here, my parents and grandparents were born here. But it often feels like there’s no group for me here. There isn’t a single political party in Quebec that truly represents my views, or even comes close. The Liberals are sort of the best-of-the-worst alternative. But it’s hard to deny that I’m very often out of step with the discourse around me.

Normally, that’s okay. Vive la différence, and we are normally (again, with the exception of the terrible events of last night) very good at having not-always-polite-but-usually-respectful political discourse. I’m happy to debate, to educate or be educated, and to agree to disagree when it’s all said and done.  I’ll even happily go out for a beer afterwards.

I’m tired, though. I’m tired of always focusing on how we differ instead of on all the ways in which we’re alike. And there are so many ways, but they always seem to get ignored in politics in favour of emphasizing those differences for political gain. I’m tired of always being an outsider, never part of the group. Never part of the “nous” that Pauline Marois referred to in her campaign, no matter how long my family has been here or how much French I learn. I’m tired of scanning Twitter and reading the many thousands of posts that overwhelmingly reflect the exact opposite of how I think and feel, and I’m tired of the sense of alienation that comes from the feeling that I will never, ever get to experience what it feels like to be part of a majority in this province.

And then the sun rises the next day, and I pick myself up and I remind myself of all the reasons why it’s good to be a minority. Why it’s a strength, not a weakness.

Welcome to being a minority, Mme Marois. I don’t think you’ll necessarily enjoy it. But I hope you learn something.

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Quebec political donations: By the numbers

08.16.2012

Polls are one thing; money is another. What can we gauge from the fundraising of the major Quebec political parties, and what can it tell us about the possible election outcome? According to the Directuer général des élections du Québec, there have been 33,547 donations in 2012 to date to Quebec’s political parties, totalling just [...]

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High-ho, high-ho…

08.01.2012

…it’s off to the polls we go. Quebecers will vote in the provincial election that some are dubbing the “tuition election” on September 4th. While it’s true that Charest has always been better at campaigning than at governing, after nearly a decade in power, it’s likely to be somebody else’s turn at the helm. And [...]

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Good news, bad news

05.25.2011

The bad news? Bob Rae is the interim Liberal leader. The good news? He can’t be elected as long-term leader.

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Top 10 reasons why tonight’s results are bad for Canada

05.03.2011

Well, the votes are in, and Stephen Harper has his majority government. The right moves further to the right. The Tories, after spending five years walking all over Canadians as a minority, now get to walk all over Canadians even more as a majority. Harper believes – as he should, with these numbers – that [...]

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Vote smart; read the platforms

04.17.2011

What does your party believe? I’d venture a guess that only a small number of Canadians who vote actually bother to read their party’s platforms… or the platforms of the other parties.  Even if we concede that politicians break campaign promises all the time, shouldn’t you know what your party is promising before casting your [...]

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Too little, too late?

09.30.2010

The Liberal bill introduced in the House of Commons today to reinstate and entrench the long-form census, after the Tory government callously and summarily ignored an opposition motion on the same subject yesterday. But is it too little, too late? But there is little chance a private member’s bill would be able to get through [...]

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Update: Rae drops out

12.09.2008

With Bob Rae’s withdrawal from the Liberal leadership race, looks like it’ll be Michael Ignatieff by acclaimation. A strategist more than an idealist, Ignatieff doesn’t arouse much excitement among disillusioned and disenfranchised voters. He’ll be painted as a neo-con and Harper wannabe by the left and as a boring academic with no new ideas by [...]

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These foolish games…

12.04.2008

The inevitable result of the petty political squabbling has occurred: Parliament has been shut down to stave off a no-confidence vote that would have been scheduled for Monday, where the opposition was trying to take over the country in what essentially would amount to a bloodless coup. Looks, it’s quite simple: You don’t have to [...]

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