When they first read the Manifesto I had the hon- our of co-signing a year ago today, many of its readers predicted that our initiative would result in the creation of a new political party. Today, I see that they were right. One might say that our efforts resulted in the creation of Québec Solidaire. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, since we don’t actually intend to claim paternity of that party.
Among the events that followed the Manifesto were other surprises including, above all, the intensity of the reactions we provoked. That was probably the combined effect of two attitudes: one, of approval, by people happy to hear their unspoken thoughts; the other, of opposition, coming from those who wished to protect a regime threat- ened by the assault of what they perceived as an ultra- pessimistic right wing.
Allow me to set the record straight with respect to the accusations of pessimism and our relegation to the ranks of the pariahs of the right wing.
No one would like better than I to learn that we are not among the most highly indebted and highly taxed people in North America; that we are prepared to meet the challenges of globalized competition; that our universities and other educational establishments have the budgetary resources necessary to accomplish their indispensable mission; that the uncontrolled growth in health care costs does not threaten to damage our public finances beyond the point of repair; that our demographics are not among the weakest in the Western world. Alas, reality does not permit me to do so. I would also like to be able to ignore the negative effects resulting from the disincentives of our collective regimes, which make us work fewer hours per day, fewer days per year and fewer years than our American and even Ontarian neighbours.
Quebecers need both a vision of the future and the con- fidence to be able to achieve it. And it is optimism itself that imposes on us an obligation of transparency. No vision of the future is possible that does not begin with an honest assessment of our present reality, even if we do not like what we see. Optimism does not mean wearing rose- tinted glasses in order to make things appear better than they are. It is daring to assess ourselves honestly and without complacency. In cruder terms, it is looking straight in the mirror rather than into the distort- ed surface of Echo’s pond.
Being optimistic means giving up the comfort of careless inaction and choosing the path of responsibility and reform. It is betting on the will of Quebecers to protect and nurture their extraordinary heritage, not only so that they may enjoy it, but also so it may be passed on to their successors as a springboard from which they may attain even greater heights.
This heritage is too beautiful, too inspiring, too rich in accomplish- ments and promise for it not to live on in the dreams and pride of our children and grandchildren. I am decidedly among the optimists who believe that Quebecers, after 12 generations of collective effort, will not abandon this great relay race.
A large part of the discussion surrounding the Manifesto also took place in a moral context, a context in which we were not cast as heroes. There were those who tried to pigeonhole us as self-important penny-pinchers in the face of sympathetic generosity, not to mention the invective that was showered on us. It wasn’t all so bitter. Sometimes we were just treated like those the ancient Greeks referred to more delicately as peripatetics.
I confess to being uneasy when peo- ple take it upon themselves to be representatives of compassion and morality. We may differ in our opin- ions on many matters, but I claim for all the right to express their opinions, without having to suffer through an inquisition as to their intentions. We must be wary of monopolies, especially monopolies on virtue and truth. There is also the matter of the ”œright-wing” label that has so often been attached to us. This idea of pigeonholing into neat ideological categories has always perplexed me.
First of all, it’s a way to demonize the speaker.
The pejorative connotations of terms like ”œleftist” or ”œright-winger,” when used by various protagonists, are well known. What’s more, in the reali- ty and context of the issues we debate, positions do not fit perfectly into neat categories. Specific problems require specific solutions. Rather than con- stantly working on autopilot, it seems more responsible and better suited to the difficulties of stubborn facts to adjust our judgment and actions to reflect integrity, respect for others and the reality that surrounds us.
For example, if we believe in the necessity of reconciling career and family, we opt to create a network of daycares, without worrying about the labels attached to them. If we believe it is important to ease the burden of low-income, single-parent families, we implement a family policy. Likewise, if forty continuous years of deficits are strangling the state and making its management unaccountable, we implement a policy of austerity to bal- ance the budget. Was the Parti Québécois that I led on the left or the right when it undertook these initia- tives? Where on the political grid does the Jacques Parizeau government’s decision to close short-term care hos- pitals fall? Were the unions on the right or the left when they supported achieving a zero deficit? Was René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois on the left or the right when it adopted the tough measures of 1981 to save public finances? Were the measures that allowed for the improvement of Québec’s credit rating right-wing or left-wing? Where do we place the Pay Equity Act or the special act that ended the nurse’s strike, despite their being underpaid? I’ll leave that debate to the experts.
For my purposes, in each case the policy was the same, a policy of responsibility and of balancing that which is possible with that which is necessary. A policy that worries not about moving to the left or to the right, but instead, about moving for- ward, with open eyes.
We all love Quebec. We are all proud of its achievements and, in par- ticular, of its policies of compassion implemented for the benefit of the less fortunate. Logically, then, we are subject to the strictest possible obligation to ensure our finan- cial capacity to continue main- taining our social heritage.
Might we also spare a thought for education, research, roads, regional development, culture, urban infrastructure, agriculture, environment, correc- tional services and the develop- ment of our natural riches? We must recognize that these areas have not been particularly fortu- nate in recent decades. Thus the inescapable necessity, I would say the duty, to be concerned about productivi- ty, wealth generation and the rigorous management of the state’s business.
It would therefore be irresponsible to act carelessly and not to make an effort, right from the beginning, to see clearly. In other words, solidarity is the product of lucidity. It cannot come with the attitude that its problems will be dealt with by the next generation. From one generation to the next, we are a chain of solidarity. I plead for this type of solidarity as well.
The coming generation will want to receive something more from us than soothing words and, worse, apologies. For that generation and for the memory it will have of us, the moment of truth will come when it discovers it must deal with a poisoned inheritance in the form of a $118 bil- lion debt (as of now), of which three- quarters " almost $90 billion " was incurred on account of current opera- tions. Only one-quarter of the Quebec government’s overall debt has been dedicated to investments in structure. May I add, at the risk of appearing pessimistic once again, that these future taxpayers are unlikely to be comforted when they realize that those who will bear this are fewer in number for a heavier burden as a result of our increased longevity? As the beneficiaries of the fruits of the Quiet Revolution, shouldn’t we feel guilty when we think about the enor- mous mortgage that we are preparing to bequeath?
I see the anxiety and distress of the future leaders of Quebec when they have to justify taxes and cuts in servic- es in order to repay their parents’ and grandparents’ living expenses. I hope, in particular, that our future premiers will not have to go through what I did in May 1996.
Allow me to describe it for you. My government had just delivered its first budget, announcing unprecedent- ed cuts in public spending, including a 6 percent cut in labour costs. Our cred- it rating was already at a critical level. One more downgrade would have made us an at-risk borrower, just a hair away from being ostracized by institu- tional lenders. It was to avoid that cat- astrophic fate that the participants in the Québec City Economic Summit agreed to fight deficits ruthlessly. We compiled a budget in that vein, think- ing that its rigour would reassure the rating agencies.
You can imagine my shock, that beautiful morning in May 1996, when my chief of staff and the deputy min- ister of finance burst into my office to hand me, in black and white, the draft of a press release that one of the two major New York rating agencies was going to publish the following day: we were being downgraded once again, precisely the fate we had done so much to avoid.
Obviously, I couldn’t resign myself to this. I managed to get a sus- pension of the press release’s publica- tion to allow time for a meeting with the agency’s analysts. I flew out early the next morning to New York with the deputy minister and the assistant deputy minister from the Ministry of Finance. In the interests of discretion, we chartered a private plane instead of using a government plane.
I will not soon forget the two or three hours we spent face to face with a quartet of agency officers in a Wall Street skyscraper explaining, justify- ing, pleading, discussing, answering questions such as this: how can it be believed that, after 40 consecutive years of budget deficits, the Quebec government will succeed, in three years, in achieving a zero deficit?
During this time, the spirit of the discussions surrounding the public and parapublic sector negotia- tions in the ”˜70s came to mind. Government spokespeople had to argue as though their lives depended on it to rebut the theory of the state’s unlimited capacity to pay. I also told myself that it was embarrassing for the premier of a responsible govern- ment to have to suffer such a humiliating defeat at the hands of Wall Street analysts. I thought of my father, who never bought anything, including a truck or a house, without paying for them in cash. I couldn’t help but conclude: this is what hap- pens when one spends and borrows beyond one’s means. And I also told myself that the control and the integrity of public finances are the beginning, even the condition sine qua non, of sovereignty.
Back to New York. After having exhausted all of our arguments and reiterated the government’s determi- nation, we stopped, a little short of breath. The agency’s representatives, after giving us a silent and dubious look, indicated that they would contact us shortly. Messrs. Alain Rhéaume, Gilles Godbout and I returned to Québec City with fingers crossed.
The next day, we were informed by phone, to our great relief, that there would be no downgrade and that we would instead be placed under obser- vation. A press release issued the same day was to confirm that.
I’ve always thought that the rally- ing of participants at the summit was an important factor in the trust that was placed in us that day. I swore to myself that nothing would prevent my government from achieving a zero deficit. We did it a year ahead of schedule. Thereafter, we had to man- age surpluses which, in a way, was just as difficult. After all, we weren’t used to it.
Having been through that, how could I not find the battle of numbers that ensued in our exchanges with the members of Québec Solidaire surreal? Clearly they are more optimistic than our lenders!
These media wars where numbers are thrown around willy-nilly all have one thing in common: the population, exasperated, refuses to deal with the issue. We avoided this trap at the first economic summit of 1996 at which orderly and factual presentations before all the parties, who confirmed them forthwith by their presence, allowed Quebec’s situation to be prop- erly assessed. That was not the case at the time of the manifesto’s publica- tion. I’ll give an example. We reported that Quebec’s ratio of debt to GDP was a worrisome 43 percent. How per- plexed must the public have been to be reassured by the Québec Solidaire camp, which found comfort in what was, according to them, the far more critical situation of the European countries, which had an average rate of indebtedness of 54 percent?
In the presence of attentive parties brought together in the appropriate forum, this sophism wouldn’t have held up for a single minute. Someone would quickly have corrected percep- tions by pointing out that Quebec is not a unitary state, and that, as a result, the simplest arithmetic forces us to add its share of the federal debt to our own. After having made the neces- sary corrections to compare apples with apples, the relevant Quebec rate of 90 percent is the proper comparator by which it should be judged with respect to the European average of 54 percent, which is in any case alarming. Pierre Fortin explains a number of these corrections in the article he pub- lished as part of a collective work that came out at the beginning of the week entitled ”œAgir maintenant pour le Québec de demain.”
Finally, one is obliged to realize the obvious, that based on strict factu- al data, Quebec truly is faced with the problems described in the manifesto. The situation has been described, the picture has been taken. Because our people lack a dream, they are taking refuge in denial and intransigence. The timorous attitudes that defeated stimu- lating projects such as the university health centre in Outremont or the Peel Basin Entertainment Centre are, in my mind, symptoms of a disturbing sense of helplessness. Avoiding the smallest risk, refusing to move forward with anything until the last critic has been con- vinced, submitting uncon- ditionally to the dictates of the cautionary principle and, of course, keeping dis- creetly silent about it all; this is where the fashion- able, accepted proprieties will get us.
And yet, we ask for more and work less without even thinking. It is irresponsible to give ourselves benefits that our successors will not be able to enjoy themselves, and that they will, moreover, be forced to pay for. We cannot forget that our suc- cessors are those who will stick around. Given these conditions, it must be our dearest hope that those young people who have the option of leaving resist the temptation to escape a state in dire straits and a society that is going nowhere.
Let’s not wait for the electroshock of crisis to wake up.
The burning question is how we are going to overcome these chal- lenges. Time is short for us to take action. We must urgently raise uncomfortable questions and try to come up with answers. How can Quebecers realize the gravity of the situation and the need to react? How can they realize that the danger is as pernicious as it is latent, if not more so? How do we resist the temptation to be lulled into a false sense of securi- ty? How do we convince everyone of the urgency of a policy of hope founded on rigour and effort?
I am certain that our fellow citizens will open their eyes and look at that which they refuse to see if, next to an inexorable collective decline, they are presented with a stirring vision of the future.
In order to rediscover the fervour and pride that inspired the achieve- ments of the Manic 5, James Bay, Expo 67 etc., and to begin work once again on Quebec, our fellow citizens need to see where the measures and the proj- ects presented to them fit into the big picture. But then, this plan, this design, this dream, or (this is the expression I prefer) this vision " who must conceive it, who must submit it to the population, and who must make it a reality?
It cannot happen through the actions of a small group. This is the work of many people.
Intellectuals and those in the world of education generally are the first to be called upon. They played a key role in the spreading and unfold- ing of the Quiet Revolution. They were the ones who gave its impetus to mod- ern Quebec and it is they who should fashion the idea out of which the next one will grow. In addition to their pri- mary responsibilities for research and dissemination of knowledge, should they not be more present in today’s cities, animating them with a vigorous exchange of ideas?
Business people must also be invit- ed to break their silence. Without their points of view and the perspectives they can bring, based on their experience, public debates can only be poor- er. Too few economic leaders and fin- anciers are willing to stand up and express their views on the issues facing our society. It is true that, in so doing, they expose themselves to acerbic retorts by various partisans. They have certainly not been encouraged to speak out publicly, taking into account the treatment received by the authors of the manifesto. But with practice, the fact of their involvement in such debates will become familiar, and therefore less dramatic, and will bring a desirable balance to the dialogue.
That is what happened during the summits. There were vigorous but very positive exchanges with union leaders.
The participation of the unions in the creation of a game plan for Quebec is, by all accounts, critical. Without them, we could not conceive a bal- anced plan or bring it to fruition.
Unions and their leaders, too, are at a crossroads. Agents of change by their very nature, they are now forced to take note of geo-economic changes and act accordingly. I imagine they will have already begun their reflec- tion with respect to the viability of cer- tain businesses and jobs that depend on them, especially in the manufactur- ing sector. They cannot be unaware that a growing number of such busi- nesses are being squeezed by ferocious Asian competition and unsustainable operating costs, resulting, inter alia, from the normative rigidity of a suc- cession of collective agreements. Their action is directly called for by the necessity to facilitate the establish- ment of an economic and regulatory framework that encourages innovation and investment.
And since we’re talking about work sites, everyone has a job to do. The cultural community, so dynamic, so imaginative and so closely tied to the Québécois identity, must also play a part. To stimulate, inspire and encourage dreams, who better than Quebec’s creators and artists? They must once again speak out and reclaim the place they occupied during the excitement of the ”˜60s and ”˜70s.
In short, all of civil society must get involved, including community movements, professional associations and other socio-economic actors.
I have saved the most important actor for last. Obviously, politics is the principal motor of such an undertak- ing. Without pretending it is news to anyone, may I underline that responsi- bility for the ultimate decisions on Quebec’s future is at the very heart of the political mandate? The worries and hopes engendered by our current situ- ation are of concern to all political par- ties. In addition to the manifesto, assessments and analyses such as those of Alain Dubuc in ”œL’Éloge de la richesse,” and of Jacques Ménard’s group, more specifically with respect to financing health care programs, must be considered; without counting the seminars, speeches, interviews, articles and programs of all kinds that have generally described Quebec’s dilemma. Political circles will have also noted the responsible welcome given to the increase in electricity rates and the creation of the Generations Fund.
Having left active politics for good, and remembering the deficien- cies and the timidity of some of my decisions, I am aware that I must be modest when I speak as I do today, especially when presented with the enormity of the task to be accom- plished. But this context must be taken together with the necessity to justify undertaking an initiative of mobiliza- tion, persuasion and decision-making. It is in these tasks that the credibility, audacity and leadership we expect of our politicians will be put to use.
But achieving the acceptance of an overall plan will be easier if it fits within a framework designed to attract the support of our fellow citizens. I haven’t the temerity to propose the overall vision, but it seems to me that it should, among other things:
Include a model of the generous, creative, dynamic and self- assured Quebec that we dream of passing on in 20 years to the next generation
Make an equitable distribution of the efforts and sacrifices required
Base the achievement of the over- all plan on the broadest possible support
Be frank, realistic and free of ideology
Put structural measures in place to ensure wealth creation;
Guarantee the pursuit of the goals of social compassion and support for the less fortunate
Provide as much as possible for investments in education and innovation
The more we try to outline the task to be done, the more we will appreciate its challenges. But I have two reasons to say that it is achievable.
The first is that it is necessary. Further explanation is unneces- sary. Our discussions today have con- firmed the incontrovertible reality that forces us to make a simple choice: either continue to go in cir- cles, spiralling gently into decline or take flight toward the peaks more properly suited to our talents, resources and the long-standing courage of our ancestors. As soon as Quebecers have grasped the concept that there are no other alternatives, they will choose the difficult and exhilarating path of success.
Second, we have all that we need to succeed. We can, first and fore- most, count on our values, our demo- cratic engagement and the integrity of the institutions that support them.
Our concern for social jus- tice and compassion give our collective experience a human and harmonious nature. We have elevated tolerance to the level of a civic duty, and our popula- tion has been enriched by an array of ethnic contri- butions that expand our horizons.
As for education, our universities, research cen- tres, colleges and teaching establish- ments will, provided we give them the means, open the doors of knowl- edge, culture, and market conquest to the coming generations. They must continue their work preparing a labour force that is qualified and able to meet the challenges of indus- try. We absolutely require these skills and resources to compete on a level playing field in a world that places innovation and the knowledge economy at the heart of its development. It is the distinction and the great value of the Quiet Revolution to have given Quebec such a significant tool.
We are also superbly provided for when it comes to culture. From music to literature, theatre and film, to painting, from dance to performance in general, we’ve lost count of the creators and artists who have made their names through their expression of the Québécois identity.
In the economic and financial domains, we have laid the groundwork for the successes of which we are capable. The time when the so-called elites left the responsibilities and achievements of business to others is over. Combined with the training of highly qualified managers and the emergence of daring and visionary entrepreneurs, the mixed economy policies put in place by our govern- ments of recent decades have given Quebec highly effective instruments of development and a particularly compe- tent business community. Such that, next to the Caisse de dépôt and Hydro- Québec, we have witnessed the birth and progress of Power Corporation, Quebecor, Transcontinental, Saputo, CGI, Canam Manac and any number of other businesses that have taken flight.
We can also depend on a vigorous cooperative network in which commercial and manufacturing estab- lishments are distributed in large urban centres as well as in rural areas. Cooperatives make their presence felt in the financial sector, where the Désjardins movement is prospering along with the big banks and other financial institutions.
Among the organizations that animate our collectivity, no one needs to be reminded of the role of unions. Irreplaceable agents of equity and social stability, they have become a force with which governments and other employers must reckon.
They are important assets in support of their members’ futures and the future of Quebec in its entirety. Even though their mission occasionally places them in conflict, objectively speaking, with other economic actors, they have an obligation to match their actions with the imperatives and the balance of the socio-economic system in which they, too, must develop. For almost half a cen- tury, they have been social pedagogues and actors that have greatly contributed to the construction of a just and progres- sive society. By all accounts, the con- struction of tomorrow’s Quebec will not be possible without them. I would say, more accurately, that it will be made pos- sible thanks to their support.
But the greatest guarantee of the success of tomorrow’s Quebec is to be found among today’s youth. I know the heart-rending statistics on suicide and the drop-out rates. But those are among the reasons to launch a collec- tive initiative of hope of a gratifying life. Indeed, the determination to stretch oneself to one’s limits, the thirst to understand the changing world, the desire to leave one’s mark " these are all ubiquitous among Quebec’s youth. They are free of the parochial instincts and inhibitions common among peo- ple of my generation. Talented, compe- tent, informed and open to all realities, today’s youth have the ability to stretch Quebec’s new intellectual, economic, professional and cultural boundaries to their limits.
In other words, that which is nec- essary, is possible. The rest is a matter of willingness and confidence. I am absolutely convinced that Quebecers will allow themselves to be guided by their pride, their sense of responsibility, and their work ethic, which has long been among their characteristic traits, their sense of continuity and their love of their children. They will remember that their geography is one of great ambitions rather than satisfied comfort. One is not content with a mediocre des- tiny when one has been bequeathed the immensity of such natural treas- ures, prodigious in their resources of all kinds, so beautiful and so varied in the infinite landscape of their forests, fields, mountains, lakes and rivers.
Faced with their history, the histo- ry of those who came before them and the history that they will make, and confronted with the expectations of their children, Quebecers will want to show that they are worthy of the her- itage that has been entrusted to them.
This speech was the clos- ing keynote at a symposium organized by McGill University on October 19, the first anniversary of the manifesto’s publication.