It is always difficult to know in the short run whether the election of a new government will trigger a change of kind or a change in degree in the governance of any political enti- ty. Monitoring its early discourse and the first moments of its activities is therefore important from a diagnostic point of view, and crucial from an action perspective: a fair description of what is happening is bound to inform the citizenry about what is emerging, and help supporters and opponents alike to organize better to bolster or challenge the strategy in the making.
The Charest government came to power in April 2003, and its perform- ance has been closely monitored by two clutches of political scientists. Most observers have welcomed the re- emergence of this genre that has been quite important in the past in Quebec when Gérard Bergeron, Léon Dion, Daniel Latouche and Denis Monié€re crit- ically chronicled the successes and fail- ures of different Quebec governments.
Two books on Charest’s first 500 days therefore deserve some attention, not only because they indicate a revival of political analysis ”œaÌ€ chaud,” but also because, although not flawless, they are informative and reveal much about both the situation in Quebec and the Quebec intelligentsia’s frame of mind.
Although the two books cover the same territory, they are based on dif- ferent strategies; adopt different per- spectives; elect to use significantly different approaches, styles and lan- guages; and generate quite different outcomes. They share, however, some similar flaws in dealing with the fun- damental issue of diversity, and may be too exclusively retrospective and not sufficiently rich in prospecting more imaginative and better ways to meet the challenges faced by the Charest government, and how that might be accomplished.
Neither the R book (Rouillard et al.) nor the B book (Boismenu et al.) is partisan in the narrow sense of the word: they are not defending a political party line. But the R book is unashamedly ”œide- ological”: it dogmatically defends a cer- tain number of presumptions regarded as an unchallengeable credo. The B book is much more prudent and subtle analyti- cally, but it is not immune from ideo- logical undertones, especially in the third part of the book, where it deals with the thorny questions of participa- tory democracy and Quebec identity.
The R book is built on a set of strong presumptions: the definition of governance as being anchored in the public sector, the state-centric welfare state as the unchallengeable reference, the theological specificity and sanctity of both the ”œpublic sector” and ”public” control, the foundational character of statism and neo-corporatism as embod- ied in the regime brought forth by the Quiet Revolution, the professionalism and devotion of a missionary public service, and the overriding of electoral- ly representative democracy by partici- patory democracy. As a result, any modification or reduction of the auton- omy and capacity of the state (in the name of efficiency, effectiveness and economy, for instance) is dogmatically condemned as the impoverishment of a governance system that must remain anchored in juridical and administra- tive rationality, and operationalized by a sacrosanct public service.
The B book is deliberately more eclectic and pluralist. It constructs its perspective around five sets of observa- tions: the amateurism of the Charest government and its ineffective ”œpoliti- cal communication strategy,” the con- flict between the electoral and the ”œsocial” mandate, the pro-business community and anti-union ”œimage” of the Charest government, the lack of unity of view of the members of the government, and the lacklustre quality of incrementalism in the face of a his- tory of ”œgrands projets mobilisateurs.”
These observations are used loosely to examine three questions: the extent to which the public sector is being re- engineered; the extent to which the ”œpolitic” is being redefined; and the extent to which these actions are in any way ”œweakening” the role of the Quebec state in defining Quebec iden- tity (within) and its presence and influence (without).
The R book is a normative, ”œinté- griste” (I would hazard, at times) and vehement expression of ”œdynamic con- servatism” aÌ€ la SchoÌˆn (i.e., activism in the defence of the status quo). It pays little attention to context and attempts to defend the integrity of what it sees as the fundamental state-centric nature of Quebec governance that needs pro- tection from the barbarians. As a result, the tone and language of the book often slide into diatribe, echoing a strong ideological attack against any change in the governance of Quebec as the result of a deliberate attempt to destroy the foundations of the not-real- ly-perfectible regime in place.
For the R team, the Charest strate- gy is the result of sheer dogmatism, and reveals some fundamental igno- rance and fanaticism: the result of silly mimetism of what has been undertak- en in the US and the UK, and an ille- gitimate tinkering with the iconic state. A Manichean perspective ensues: a state-centric scheme purportedly bestowing benefits on all is seen as under threat ”” to be displaced by a new regime that has nothing to offer but inequality and exclusion.
The B book is critical, but more serene, displaying a ”œscepticisme de bon aloi face au gouvernement et aÌ€ ses politiques.” It is mainly an attempt to explain why the Charest government has failed so miserably: promising the moon and delivering very little that is revolutionary, and suffering a great deal in the polls any- way as a result of its failure to explain why it does what it does, and why it is necessary to do so.
The B book takes much more time to gauge the change in context, and to examine the limits of the strategy adopt- ed by the Charest government. It does not denounce the Charest strategy;: it contextualizes and evaluates it. Boismenu et al say they are attempting to ”œexplain” why there is such a gap between the ”œambitions” of the govern- ment and its ”œaccomplishments,” but also to explain the extent to which the changes in progress are likely to modify the ”œpowers” of the public sector, the contours of the ”œpolitical,” and the sup- port for the public infrastructure of the ”œQuebec identity.” In the last sections of the book, the seductions of direct partic- ipatory neo-corporatist democracy and state-centrism sway the authors some- what, and the serenity wanes somewhat.
The relative importance of the ”œidentité québécoise” question in the two books is not surprising, but it poses an interesting challenge. It is argued in the name of history and her- itage (by the R book) and in the name of a ”œdevoir é‚tre collectif” (in the B book), that there are limits than can be imposed ”” in the name of l’identité québécoise ”” to the sort of freedoms that our democratic system should allow for citizens: there would not appear to be a clear place in either sce- nario for deep cultural pluralism and deep diversity. L’identité québécoise looms large as a constraint.
What both books would appear not to accept is the dynamics of an open society that evolves, that must evolve. In a globalized world with massive pop- ulation transfers, the Quebec population has become quite diversified. Such a cultural heterogeneity calls for some sort of recognition that ”œuni- form national standards” may not meet the needs of such diverse citizens.
Both books denounce the ”œatomization” of the relationship between the state and the citizen, and the exclusion of some interest groups from the deliberations with the state, but nei- ther book follows up with what might be the implications for representative democracy of such a neo-corporatist stand. Supposedly, representative govern- ment elected by citizens at large is no longer sufficient. The neo-corporatist credo calls for participatory democracy and a strong voice for collective interest groups, but it is less enthusiastic about granting such a voice to ”œcultural groups.”
When it comes to ”œl’identité québécoise” it would appear that the importance of diversity vanishes. In fact, even the more serene B book derides the ”œsentiment d’appartenance communautaire” expressed by Montreal communities, and recognized by Jean Charest in the referendum on ”œles défusions municipales.” It approv- ingly quotes Denise Bombardier when she says ”œun pas de plus et on parlerait du triomphe de la diversité culturelle.”
What are denounced as imperial- ism when standards are imposed by Ottawa, become legitimate unfreedoms that the Quebec government may (must) impose in the name either of the preservation of ”œles acquis de la Révolution Tranquille” or of ”œl’héritage politico-administratif” or the ”œdevoir é‚tre collectif.” These unfreedoms all of a sudden become ”œdes actions struc- turantes” that can legitimately impose constraints and standards on a deeply diverse population in the name of ”œles intéré‚ts supérieurs de la nation.” Un pas de plus et ce serait ”œla raison d’EÌtat.”
What lurks behind part 3 of the B book, and all through the R book, is revulsion at the idea that the state might be regarded as ”œun vulgaire presta- teur de services.” A Hegelian-flavoured metaphysics haunts both books: the state (always spelled with a capital S) is regard- ed as the fundamental societal ”œorgan- ism,” with moral purposes that transcend those of its individual citizens.
Therefore, depending on the coefficient of Hegelianism harboured by the authors, tinkering with the state is perceived as less or more a crime of lé€se-majesté. For the soft Hegelians (the B book), there is more to the state than service provision, but this does not prevent one from legitimately seeking more efficiency and effectiveness in alternative non- state delivery systems. For the hard Hegelians (the R book), any tinkering with any aspect of the state sphere that may reduce its scope or ambit can only be regarded as heresy.
PPPs as a collaborative governance alternative to state provision of services is no panacea. Like all forms of collaborative governance, it does not always work well and produce high performance. Indeed, there is much disagreement among experts about the extent to which PPPs may improve efficiency and effectiveness, accountability and quality assurance in the provision of public services. All agree that this is very much terra incognita for the partners when these initiatives are launched, and that some winning condi- tions must be satisfied if much benefit is to be derived from such collaboration: a perception of legitimacy and credibility of the process by the citizenry, a good design of the original arrangement, an equitable sharing of risks, a rigorous and continu- ing evaluation of performance so as to generate social learning, and an effective governance of the agreement.
Both books (although each to a dif- ferent extent) take aim at the public- private partnerships component of the Charest strategy.
In the B book, the tone is scepti- cal. It is fairly argued that ”œla mon- tagne a accouché d’une souris.” The authors’ view might even be interpret- ed as not necessarily opposed to PPPs, but rather unimpressed by the way in which the Charest government is going about this strategy. There is no denial that under the right conditions PPPs might help solve many problems, although it is felt that the Charest gov- ernment may be too timid and that its top-down clumsiness leaves much scope for discontent and for sabotage by the permanent public servants who are threatened by such arrangements.
In the R book, the tone is acerbic. Its opposition to PPPs is fundamental. It is asserted in a peremptory way that none of the winning conditions exist, and that none of the promises in terms of gains in efficiency and effectiveness, accountabil- ity, and quality assurance in the provi- sion of public services can be realized. All this is ”œun discours illusoire et insidieux,” ”œune chimé€re.” Nothing is proved or dis- proved. We are in the world of dogma: the tone is akin to the one used by Stéphane Dion when he purports to ”œshow” that fiscal imbalance is logically impossible in the Canadian federation.
The R book’s attack on PPPs in gen- eral is not entirely groundless. The authors are right when they insist that some winning conditions are necessary for PPPs to work, and that they are not always in place. What makes their argument somewhat specious is that they presume without any proof that such conditions can never be realized. The ideological underpinnings of this theological position are clear: if one were to allow for the possibility of any such collaborative governance, the very sacred nature of the state would be eroded and its metaphysical dominium thereby questioned. Such an act of heresy cannot be entertained.
These two books, despite their flaws, are enlightening both about the mystery of the Charest govern- ment failures and about the state of mind of the Quebec intelligentsia, but they leave the reader sur son appétit.
The B book has thrown some light on the reasons why the Charest gov- ernment has been in such difficulties. It has shown that it has been a gov- ernment plagued by amateurism, inde- cision, internal dissension, weakness of will, and immense difficulties in communicating with the citizenry. One might add that some key minis- ters’ lack of political savvy and subtle- ty has made life particularly difficult for the Charest government.
The R book is much less factually enlightening about the challenges and choices faced by the Charest govern- ment, but it has the merit of starkly and doggedly reminding the reader of the profound ideological underpin- nings of much of the political debate in Quebec, and of the central tenets behind some of the Quebec intelli- gentsia’s blind spots.
Indeed, one of the important forces left largely unnoticed and unanalyzed in both books is the habitus of the Quebec intelligentsia and media: the strong state-centric and neo-corporatist leanings of both groups have led them to hold the Charest government (in its efforts to modernize Quebec gover- nance and to explain what it is trying to do) to standards of clarity and persua- sion that they would never demand from the defenders of the other view.