Senior politicians from the youth branches of the Parti Québécois (PQ) and the Action démocratique Québec (ADQ) staged a debate in French on Monday as part of Francofête, the annual week-long celebration of francophone culture at McGill.
The centre-right ADQ was represented by Andrew Noël Swidzinski, regional counselor from Montreal West, while the PQ’s youth president Alexandre Thériault-Marois stood in for the provincial separatist party.
The two politicians disagreed over funding for postsecondary education. Although Thériault-Marois expressed grave concerns about the nearly $4-billion deficit faced by Quebec in the wake of last year’s recession, he said raising tuition would not be a viable way of raising government revenue. He cited worries that high tuition would force Quebeckers out of province or abroad to attend university or college.
Swidzinski, on the other hand, argued that schools should be allowed to make their students pay for 30 per cent of the cost of their tuition. McGill Arts students already pay for more than 30 per cent, and thus would not be affected by the ADQ plan.
In reference to the recent drastic increase in McGill’s MBA tuition, Swidzinski said, “Whether we charge $2,000 or $30,000, students will have a tendency to go abroad.”
Swidzinski also indicated the ADQ would also like to see a rise in public service fees – including Hydro-Québec. He said the increase in utilities fees would encourage moderate use of electricity and other services. Summarizing the ADQ position, which includes opposition to income tax hikes, Swidzinski quipped, “Tax spending, not income.”
Thériault-Marois adamantly opposed new service fees, saying that they “were not the answer.” to fiscal woes. “Increased taxes on public services would be the least progressive tax we could have,” he added.
An audience member had pointed out earlier that it is service taxes, not income taxes, that hit low-income people the hardest, as they pay little in income taxes to begin with.
When Swidzinski cited Ireland as a success story of low-taxes and raised service fees, Thériault-Marois retorted that, “Ireland was good about three years ago.” The Irish economy, he continued, has contracted about 20 per cent since the financial crisis hit in 2008.
Debate flared during a discussion of Quebec sovereignty.
The ADQ defines itself as an autonomist party, which Swidzinski described as a desire for a “constitutionalized” nation of Quebec within Canada. The ADQ is opposed to Quebec separatism, and Swidzinski said his party does not want any more referendums of the kind led by the PQ in 1995 and 1980.
Swidzinski further accused the PQ of being disingenuous in its sovereignty negotiations with the federal government, suggesting that they did not make honest efforts to reach an agreement.
“[The PQ] say, ‘If we fail in our negotiations with the federal government, we can say they didn’t give us what we want. Let’s separate,’” said Swidzinski.
But according to Thériault-Marois, the ADQ misrepresented his party. The PQ’s policy is not to negotiate or “send a letter to Ottawa” with sovereignty proposals. He suggested a referendum be held to “prove that the people of Quebec are behind us.”
Swidzinski retorted that this claim was questionable: “I don’t think the PQ really wants a referendum.”
Thériault-Marois forcefully criticized the ADQ position. “To be autonomist is a type of rhetoric that has been used before…. Bourassa used it,” he said, referring to the former Liberal Premier of Quebec, who was in power during the 1970 October Crisis.
The one aspect of “the national question” on which the politicians agreed was that Quebec should have a strong francophone identity.
“We want Quebeckers to feel like Quebeckers…. We don’t want Little Italies all over Quebec,” Thériault-Marois said. “We want to create a community by integration.”
Swidzinski said he completely agreed with the PQ stance. Both agreed further on the primacy of French in primary education.