|Montreal, May 15, 2004 / No 142|
by Martin Masse
This speech was delivered before 160 participants to the annual Civitas conference, on May 1, 2004, in Montreal. Civitas is a network of conservatives and libertarians that meets annually in a Canadian city.
First of all, I would like to wish everybody a very happy International Workers' Day!
Ten years ago, I was a guest columnist for the summer months at the daily paper Le Devoir. I had just published a book about the issue of Quebec separation that had caught the attention of the publisher. In Quebec, writing about nationalism is still the best way to launch an intellectual career.
Instead of discussing the so-called national question, I wrote several columns deploring how government interventionism in the economy and a collectivist mindset in general were prevalent in Quebec’s political debates. My articles were fairly moderate, but it was enough to ensure that I wasn’t kept as a permanent columnist in the fall.
I had been sceptical about statism for some years and had recently discovered von Mises, Hayek and the Austrian School of Economics. I thought I was the only person in Quebec who knew about this. There were a few isolated individuals who had been writing from a libertarian perspective in French Quebec at the time, but I did not know them. In newspapers and magazines, one only very rarely came across opinions that disputed the official nationalist and statist ideology of Quebec.
I realize now that these ideas had always been widely shared among ordinary people, but the Quebec elites were almost completely on the side of collectivism, and it was just not politically correct to express a different opinion. You were not a real Quebecer if you disputed the necessity of having a strong state.
I finally met a few other libertarians and we formed a discussion group, the Friends of Liberty. This was really the beginning of the libertarian movement in Quebec. At the same time, I joined the Reform Party [Note: a western-based party founded in the late 80s, which saw several transformations and finally merged with the old Progressive Conservative Party to become the current Conservative Party of Canada], which I saw as the only party that was really serious about reducing the size of at least one state, the one in Ottawa. I ran in a by-election in 96 and I got 1% of the vote. Being a Reformer in Quebec at the time was the equivalent of being a nun in a nudist camp. I was once told to “go back west,” even though I had never been anywhere west of Toronto at the time.
Things have changed a lot in the past decade. It was a bit like a cascade effect: when some people started to openly talk about the ineffectiveness and immorality of statism, it seemed like others were encouraged to do so. It gradually became a legitimate position to hold.
The Internet had a big role to play in this, since it allowed us to finally bypass the establishment media and directly reach people. I founded what was and still is the only mainly French libertarian magazine in the world in 1998, Le Québécois Libre. Six years later, we have two dozen contributors from Quebec, France, and other countries. The website receives over 100,000 visitors a month, and that makes us one of the most important Internet publications in the province.
Other groups are springing up and defending positions that call for less government intervention, instead of more like most other pressure groups. Everyday in the media one can read or hear people denouncing high taxes, government control over health care and education, or other aspects of what is called here the Quebec Model, often with a radicalism that one could only find in the pages of Le Québécois Libre a few years ago. There are still very few openly libertarian commentators in Quebec, but everywhere I go, I meet people, including journalists, politicians and university professors, who say they share at least some of our positions, and think what we have to say is legitimate and should be heard more often. This is a significant reversal from the situation of ten years ago.
Quebec is still seen in the rest of the country as a very left-wing place. But if you look at polls, you find a few surprising results. For example, a majority of Quebecers favour a bigger role for the private sector in health care. In the rest of the country, where Medicare is the cornerstone of Canadian national-statist ideology, only a minority do.
A year and a half ago, Quebec’s political world was upset by the temporary rise of Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique party. The left-wingers panicked and denounced it as an extreme right-wing party that would dismantle Quebec’s welfare state. The reality is rather less dramatic. Just like the Quebec Liberal Party, the ADQ is made up of people who don’t have any clear idea of how they want to govern. Its program is confused and contradictory. But the interesting thing is that both parties were perceived as wanting to reverse four decades of increasing government intervention in Quebecers’ lives, as against the Parti québécois’ promise to continue it. And together, they received two thirds of the vote in last year’s general election. I think that’s a good indication of the rise of classical liberalism in Quebec.
Now, what does this all mean for Canadian conservatives? Will English Canadian conservatives be more likely to find allies in Quebec? Is the new Conservative Party of Canada going to win more votes in this province? I think it all depends on how you define the word “conservative,” and what will be the nature of Canadian conservatism in the years to come.
As I said, it was rather difficult to get people interested in the Reform Party in the 1990s, even though its program for decentralization and a smaller federal government should have appealed to many Quebecers. But many conservatives were then reacting against bilingualism, against Quebec’s perceived status as a spoiled child in Confederation, against the Trudeaus, Mulroneys, Chrétiens, Lalondes, and all these Quebecers who had exported their nasty French ideas and practices in Ottawa. Expanding the conservative movement into Quebec was not their priority.
This populist phase now seems to be on the wane, and the new Conservative Party starts with a more positive image than either Reform or the Alliance had. A strong majority of Quebecers, whether they voted yes or no when asked to separate from Canada, would prefer a decentralized federation. A lot more of them would also welcome the promise of a downsized government. The party now stands at 10% in the polls in the province. If it focuses on getting Ottawa off our back, I think it has a chance to make a breakthrough.
However, there are other strands in the conservative family, which I would describe as right-wing statism, which won’t fly in Quebec. They won’t because they are foreign to Quebec’s political culture, and because they also contradict the antistatist sensibility that is emerging.
There is no conflict between libertarianism and social conservatism, as long as social conservatives do not try to legislate their values and impose them on others. That’s unfortunately a widespread tendency. The Conservative Party recently had to expel another lunatic who said gays were planning the takeover of society and who wanted to criminalize homosexual behaviour. Conservatives seem to be obsessed with this issue. The session following this one will deal with gay marriage. There is a very simple solution to this controversy: get the state out of the marriage business. People should be allowed to enter into any voluntary relationship they want, and call it what they want. Yes, many laws, especially fiscal laws, are affected by the definition of marriage. Well, why not scrap these laws and stop bureaucratic meddling with people’s lives?
All surveys show that Quebecers are more socially liberal, some might say libertine, than other Canadians. Apart from the repressive language laws, there is a live and let live mentality that prevails here, which is part of the culture and is not going to go away. Social conservatism is usually associated with a religious orientation. There are a few social conservative activists in Quebec, especially among the small evangelical churches. But I would not bet on the appearance of a similar movement among Catholics. The Church in Quebec is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has become just another left-wing pressure group, like welfare recipients’ advocates or feminists.
In any case, the welfare state has encouraged irresponsibility, the breaking up of families and various kinds of social ills. I don’t understand why so many conservatives would now trust the politicians and bureaucrats to promote their values. The right-wing statist who is currently president of the U.S. wants to spend a billion and a half dollars to promote marriage. By the way, he also created a huge new health care program, has increasing federal control over education, and has become the biggest spender overall since Johnson in the 60s. I haven’t read anybody denouncing this in the Canadian conservative press. Is that the model Canadian conservatives want to follow? Good luck in Quebec if that is so.
There is another strand of right-wing statism which will clearly not fly here: neoconservatism. Judging from what I read in the National Post and elsewhere, it seems all so-called conservatives in English Canada, without one exception, now support the war in Iraq, American imperialism, military build-up, and increased policing and spying of citizens. In the U.S. however, most libertarians and a good many conservatives have opposed the war and all these trends towards a more repressive state. That should be the obvious position of small government conservatives. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne said. Neocons advocate a permanent state of war. If you oppose social engineering at the scale of a country, why would you believe that politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers can transform a tribal society on the other side of the planet?
Foreign policy interventionism is the equivalent, in foreign affairs, of social and economic interventionism in domestic affairs. It too creates unintended consequences and perverse effects. One of them is terrorism. Discussing how to beat the terrorists, a prominent National Post columnist wrote a few weeks ago that “America will need to reconsider decades of ultra-liberalism and political correctness, and revert to earlier modes of national purpose.” (George Jonas, “America must find its national purpose to beat the terrorists,” April 17, 2004) This is one of the most ludicrous statements I have read on this question. Haven’t the U.S. government, its army, its secret services, been invading countries, supporting tyrants and rebel groups, selling arms and helping people like Saddam Hussein and the Talibans among others, keeping military bases in over 100 countries, and generally meddling in other countries affairs for decades? Since 9-11, the neocons have promoted the laughable idea that terrorists attack us because they hate our freedom. But what the terrorists say is get out of our country and stop meddling in our affairs. Doing it would not mean surrendering to the terrorists; it would mean doing what we should have been doing in the first place to avoid this mess.
That’s not the main topic of my presentation. The point I want to make though is that it is in Quebec that opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been strongest. There is a tradition in French Canada of opposing involvement in the conflicts of the big countries. French Canadians opposed participation in the Boer War, while support for the British Empire was strong in English Canada. French Canadians also opposed conscription in the two World Wars. Considering that conscription is one of the ugliest forms of slavery to the state, I think it fits perfectly well in the classical liberal perspective and we should be proud of this. Quebecers supported free trade with the U.S., but I don’t believe they will support, not in great number at any rate, becoming the empire’s junior partner and getting us involved in the American state’s aggressions around the world.
To conclude, English Canadian conservatives have a chance to solve many of the country’s problems if they try to find allies in Quebec to downsize the federal government and decentralize the country. If they offer instead a right-wing statist program, I’m afraid we may be stuck with more liberal governments for many years, and the national question will be back to haunt us before long.
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