Premier Philippe Couillard appeared in a live interactive interview on Radio-Canada (French CBC) Wednesday night. It was the first time a Premier tried such an exercise and he didn’t have an easy time of it. Throughout the 60 minute interview, Couillard was confronted with the consequences of what he still refuses to call austerity.
“I don’t like (that term) because it’s inexact,” Couillard maintained. “when we talk about austerity, we think about other examples in Europe, where the ministries’ budgets were massively cut. I am repeating that we never diminished the budget of any ministry. We augmented them more slowly, that’s true, but we’re light-years away from what happened in Greece, England or Spain.”
It is true that every ministry’s spending in absolute numbers went up. When inflation and the normal growth of population are factored in, however, it still means that affected sectors have less money to do more.
It is quite fortunate for Couillard that he refrained from claiming, as he often did in the past, that those measures wouldn’t affect services to the population. It would have put him in quite an awkward position when the questions from the public came in. People from every part of Quebec called and shared stories about jobs lost to budget cuts and children with learning disabilities without access to proper educators.
“I am living with the rigour” said a woman who lost her job after government cut subsidies for rural employment programs, “I have exhausted my unemployment benefit and I see the specter of welfare on the horizon.”
Monique Loubry, who spent 30 years as a nurse in CHSLDs, observed “chronic deficits in staff and material.” When she asked what concrete measures would be taken to improve the situation, the Premier had two answers: optimize the management and make sure that government finances were being handled carefully. Investing in care for senior citizens will be a priority “as soon as the ‘compressions’ (meant to be less harsh than ‘coupures’ though both translate as ‘cuts’ in English) give enough financial room to the government, he assured.
Mrs Loubry was not convinced: “I have nothing against virtue, Sir, but until there are concrete numbers on the table and quality standards set, I will be waiting.”
In fact, the Premier’s responses to concerns about healthcare, state-funded kindergartens and education were all roughly the same: the lack of funding was a lesser problem than the inadequate management of it and reinvestment will come when Quebec will have made sufficient room for it in the budget.
Even if he delivered his responses as confidently as ever, he is facing growing skepticism. According to the Léger-Le Devoir survey published last week, an all-time high of 68% of Quebeckers are unsatisfied with the Couillard administration.
Half-way through his mandate, the PM’s appearance on national television was an admittedly courageous attempt to connect with the population, but not a successful one. While Couillard’s persistence in talking about “compressions” and “rigour” instead of budget cuts and austerity might have been reassuring once, it now only seems to emphasize his disconnect with the people’s reality.