On Tuesday, Quebeckers went to the polls in a historic election that seemed poised to change the future direction of the province. The election call came in August, amid the continually escalating student movement against tuition hikes that began early in January. One might have expected that the student issues that dominated the lead-up to the campaign would have continued to dominate the rhetoric of the major parties once the writ was dropped. This, however, did not materialize.
The student movement’s primary objective was to oppose a government that asked students to foot the bill for education before weeding out the inefficiencies and corruption present within its own administration. A move towards limiting government funding for education is antithetical to the values Quebec has based itself on since the Quiet Revolution. Clearly, the Liberal Party of Quebec was not a choice for the students.
The movement was not rooted in the desire for sovereignty nor the protection of Quebec values and culture. The Parti Québécois has attempted to court the student vote solely through its opposition of the Charest government and not by making promises on issues important to students. They hijacked the campaign to talk about sovereignty when, at the time, most of Quebec didn’t feel the issue deserved centre stage. Once elected, Ms. Marois announced that she would freeze the hike and repeal Bill 78. During the campaign, however, she was nearly silent. Clearly, the PQ was not a choice for the students on the issue.
Francois Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec is not Jean Charest, but his policies on tuition echo the former Premier’s. He believes that the answer to the tuition question is to lower the hike while simultaneously forcing universities to “streamline their management.” Doing so would likely result in a further cutting of student services as well as a decrease in the quality of education that students receive and deserve. The CAQ was not a choice for the students.
Ironically, the issues that were most salient in media were not those that were of primary concern to the student movement. Instead, the common wedge issues of sovereignty and language laws dominated. None of the three major parties’ websites mention tuition fees in their key platform issues. Only the fourth-place party, Québec Solidaire, mentioned undergraduate tuition in its policy priorities.
The lack of emphasis on student issues during political campaigns is not a new phenomenon. It is widely known that students do not turn out on election days, and political parties treat them accordingly. Show up to the polls, and they will show some love.
It might be possible that Mr. Charest really did fear the students, as he made it very difficult for them to express themselves and vote. The timing of the election call, which meant campaigns were held in the summer, was inconvenient for students. Many, including the CAQ, accuse Mr. Charest of abruptly calling the election in the summer in order to pre-empt the Charbonneau Commission’s investigation into corruption slated for the fall. The timing, however, may have also been aimed at keeping students from the voting booth. The election took place at the beginning of September, just as many students returned to class. Large numbers of students from outside the province could not register to vote in time and, moreover, were outside Quebec for the majority of the campaign.
The lack of representation of student interests and discussion of student issues seemed disrespectful to those who were, in large part, the reason this election was originally called. Polls may emerge in the upcoming weeks showing that students did not turn out to vote, and that the parties were smart in tiptoeing around the issue. Politics, however, should not be based merely on who comes out to vote, but on the needs and interests of all constituents.