Rigour is meant for others

Rigorous analysis: so overrated!

Late in November, former Liberal cabinet minister Lucienne Robillard unveiled the first set of recommendations by her advisory group tasked with reviewing Quebec government spending. Indeed, in June, the Couillard government mandated the committee to find potential avenues to reach a targeted $3.2G in savings in an attempt to shore up Quebec’s public finances and reduce the cost of debt servicing.

The 176-page preliminary report (which includes 55 blank pages…) comes up with close to $2.3G in savings by eliminating programs, reducing transfers, or increasing fees. Various areas have been targeted, but healthcare and education have been spared so far. Only in June of 2015 will a more complete report be released, tackling programs related to these important public services as well as Crown corporations. Unfortunately, the proposals in the preliminary report are only quickly sketched out, without context, which makes it impossible to evaluate how relevant they truly are. Hence, the report suggests to cut straight into the heart of the welfare state without even questioning the proposed measures’ impact and repercussions. Only the best of what austerity has to offer.

Under the pretext that municipal spending has increased more rapidly between 2007 and 2012 than government spending, the report suggests cutting $1.3G in transfers to municipalities. No biggy! The Robillard commission asks municipalities to implement better management practices, and offers to help out with a substantial reduction of their budgets… After stressing that parametric cuts should be avoided (e.g. 5% across the board), the report suggests a hire freeze, position attrition (not replacing retiring employees), or any other way really to reduce spending. Without increasing taxes, of course.

When the advisors start reflecting on whether certain responsibilities should be transferred to the municipal level, the only factor they seem to care about is wages, which are higher in municipalities. Consequently, transferring responsibilities wouldn’t generate any savings. Did the advisory group take the time to ask the following questions: “Could cities do a better job? Should this service rely on proximity?” No, it didn’t. Why think about how society would be best organized? The job description said “cut!”

Should these transfer reductions actually come into effect, their impact can be easily predicted: either the amputated $1.3G will be transferred to citizens through increased municipal taxes and fees (but municipalities are told to refrain from this temptation), either municipalities end up with no other choice but to consider privatizing and subcontracting their services. Such a strategy, which at face value seems economical, could very well turn into a new drain on public finances.

Finally, to save about 24 million dollars (0.024% of the 2014-2015 spending budget), the Robillard commission hopes to simply eliminate the entire Financial Support Program for Volunteer Action as well as cabinet ministers’ discretionary budgets. It’s worth noting that this last portfolio is very stable, nearing zero growth from year to year. It makes it possible to fund projects whose needs do not fit into pre-existing programs. Asking the former to turn to official and normalized programs without raising the latter’s budgets means that organizations that are in need would simply be let down, and competition among them increased.

Concerning the Financial Support Program for Volunteer Action, the report’s line of reasoning is even more absurd. Since granted subsidies are only $500 on average, the advisors —who are earning between $800 and $1,100 per day, mind you— declared that the amounts muss have no determining impact on the projects’ implementation. Henceforth, abolishing the program would have little impact.

Did the advisory group meet with MNAs to better understand what sort of projects are being supported? Has Robillard already forgotten about all those letters from boys and girls scouts, amateur theatre companies, organizations starting up and asking for the few miserable dollars they lacked to carry out their activities? It seems that these few pennies are worth more in the state’s coffers than in the local and collective initiatives to which they could give life.

Useful for whom?

This “expert” commission, which was supposed to look into the entirety of government spending to ask whether the programs met their objectives, seems to have forgotten that second part of the analysis. In its report, it demonstrates its total incapability to understand the society it’s proposing to wreck. It doesn’t consider the consequences on people’s lives. No reflection on the type of agriculture that Quebec might want to put forward. Not a word either on the social role of daycare centres or how to assist in better meeting its objectives. It all boils down to slashing budgets, increasing fees, and stimulating the private sector. Oh and all that without affecting services, of course!

But it’s worth asking: why this report? And why does it come to these conclusions? Obviously, it’s sound to question state spending, especially when it seems that we’re incapable of listing all the programs funded by the state. However, instead of starting with a superficial across-the-board review, wouldn’t it have been sounder to target certain areas, study them in depth, better understand them, and then propose reforms?

Actually, in view of the measures and reforms already proposed by the government, one quickly realizes that the creation of this advisory group is first and foremost a PR move. By choosing these advisors, the government was already well aware of the direction they would take and was confident that the reports they would produce would give it the leeway it needed to do exactly what it wanted. The government could then turn around and justify its decisions using this external and “independent” analysis. With a little luck, the commissioners would go even further than the government had hoped, and it would be able to demonstrate how “moderate” it was.

Hence, instead of being shelved, this report is rather meant to be placed under one of the legs of the shaky desk of rhetoric mobilized by the premier and his team in an attempt to stabilize it. But let’s make sure we don’t fall for this ideological display of smoke and mirrors.

This article was written by Eve-Lyne Couturier, a researcher with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

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