At a time when all workers are struggling with inflation, and those in the public sector are being offered a meager nine per cent wage increase over five years, the CAQ government figured it was a good time to grease its palms. 

Bill 24, passed on June 6, will increase the salaries and allowances of Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) by 30 per cent. Following the proposals of a report drawn up by a self-described “independent” advisory committee made up of two former MNAs and a human resources specialist, each MNA’s annual compensation will rise from $101,561 to $131,766. But including allowances, their salary will actually be $151,119. For members with special responsibilities or positions (cabinet ministers, for example), the total annual income will far exceed this; for example, the premier’s total annual remuneration will reach $270,120. This number is profoundly absurd, when the median net salary in Quebec was only $35,100 in 2020.

This indefensible salary increase was rejected by 74 per cent of Quebecers. The hypocrisy of such an obscene increase in the midst of negotiations with public sector workers was not lost on anyone. Why not let these workers vote on their own wages too? This episode highlights the rottenness of democracy under capitalism, where privileges abound for the rich and their representatives, while the working class suffers.

Hypocrisy and class contempt

The majority of parliamentarians are still trying to justify their theft of public funds.

The CAQ used a very revealing argument to justify the salary increase: the party wants to attract “quality” people to the National Assembly! Setting aside the fact that the CAQ is sending the message that its current members aren’t really “quality”, at $101,561 a year, it’s not hard to figure out who are the people who wouldn’t be attracted by such a “low” amount. We’re obviously talking about bankers, bosses, and all the other parasites who enrich themselves on the backs of working people.

Premier François Legault also tries to justify himself by saying that he’s thinking of “a young father who wants to offer as much as possible to his children.” One wonders whether Legault is aware that many workers also have children to whom they would like to give as much as possible. With the CAQ, it’s the lot of workers to be poor, and the lot of the bourgeoisie and their minions to live in luxury.

This disdainful attitude towards workers was further highlighted by Education Minister Bernard Drainville’s response when asked if teachers deserved better salaries, too: “Are you really comparing the job of a teacher to the job of an MNA? Are you telling me it’s comparable?” He’s right: the job of a teacher—and indeed most work in general—compares very little with sitting in the National Assembly and voting on laws written by the ruling party’s inner circle, or acting in symbolic parliamentary committees. Former Caquist MNA Claire Samson gave us a glimpse at the intensity of the role last year when she left the party: “Of all the jobs I’ve had, and I include when I was 17 and a clerk at Miracle Mart, or when I was a waitress at Da Giovanni, the job of MNA here at the National Assembly is the job where I’ve worked the least in my life.”

The Quebec Liberal Party, of course, also voted for the increase. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and the Liberals are in the money—business as usual!

Former Liberal MNA Lise Thériault sat on the so-called independent committee and helped draft the report proposing the wage increase. She was also, incidentally, a cabinet minister in the governments of Jean Charest and Philippe Couillard, who never hesitated to impose austerity measures on workers. Thériault justifies the committee’s position by talking about the long hours MNAs have to give to their work: “Activities in the evening, activities in the morning, you can go to a breakfast, a brunch, a Knights of Columbus evening.” Clearly, the average worker can’t fathom the horrendous effort required to attend a brunch!

This offensive salary hike and the CAQ’s eagerness to adopt it demonstrate to everyone the party’s deep class contempt. These people don’t represent us. It will always be easy for them to preach austerity to workers and blame unions for “asking too much” of the state when they’ll never have to live through the consequences of their policies. They’ll be spared the collapse of the health and education systems that they’ve been chipping away at, as they send their children to private schools and private clinics when necessary. They’ll live out their retirement on the public dime, while the workers slave away into old age. Such is democracy under capitalism: a privileged few in parliament who impose misery on the rest.

Weak opposition

The CAQ voting to raise their own salaries at the same time as they’re offering pay cuts to public sector workers should have been a gift delivered on a silver platter to Québec solidaire. The party’s members obviously opposed the increase. The party seized on the issue and was even accused of “parliamentary piracy” by the CAQ for its manoeuvres to block the bill. Yet the party still managed to stumble. Instead of unilaterally opposing it, the party sowed confusion, for example, by calling for the increase to be postponed until 2026. As if the problem was that the time wasn’t right! What’s more, in an attempt to buy himself a parliamentary victory, the party’s parliamentary leader, Alexandre Leduc, tried to “water down” the increase by limiting it to $10,000 or $20,000. It was easy to accuse the party of inconsistency.

Worse still, after Leduc suggested that the Solidaires would donate their increase to “organizations in their ridings”, party co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois then corrected himself and explained that QS MNAs could cash in on the increase if they so wished!

These blunders may benefit the Parti Québécois once again. The PQ began by dithering on the issue, denouncing the “pressure” put on them by the CAQ. Finally, probably after reflecting on the political gains they could make, PQ MNAs decided to join Québec solidaire in calling for the wage increase to be postponed until 2026. What’s more, they said they would limit their increase to the average raise that public sector workers would receive; the rest would go to charity. For the umpteenth time, QS’s limp opposition opens the door for the PQ to appear more left-wing and in touch with the mood of the labour movement.

Why a raise now?

Politically, it may seem odd that CAQ members would increase their own salaries in the middle of union negotiations, in the midst of an inflation crisis, when it was obvious that the majority of the population was going to be against such a pay raise. However, the other side of the equation is that, for the first time in almost five years, cracks are appearing in the CAQist bloc.

Indeed, the party’s retreat on the “third-link” highway tunnel connecting Quebec City to Lévis, when many of its MNAs were elected on the issue, must have caused a great deal of internal discontent. Bernard Drainville appeared before the cameras in tears, and a majority of Quebec City residents want the resignation of La Peltrie representative Éric Caire, who had once promised to resign if the third-link project didn’t go through. The setback has been humiliating for the elected officials in the region, and the PQ has even overtaken the CAQ in voting projections in Quebec City. It’s a safe bet that the pay raise is also an attempt to placate these MNAs and ministers and buy their loyalty.

For workers’ democracy

This absurd political episode exposes parliamentary “democracy” for what it really is: a democracy by and for the rich. The ministers of the National Assembly, the so-called “House of the People”, live in a world apart, disconnected from the lives of the majority of the people they are supposed to represent.

This situation stems from the role played by the state under capitalism. The state is not a neutral body; its main task is to maintain private property and defend the profits of its capitalist class. To ensure the loyalty of high-ranking state officials and those elected to parliament to the ruling class, it is necessary to guarantee them a privileged standard of living that separates them from the workers, which brings them closer to the class they represent and reinforces their interest in maintaining the capitalist status quo.

MNAs go to the same cocktail parties as wealthy entrepreneurs; the rich go to party fundraising events. The connections between the private sector and senior positions within the state bureaucracy and the Salon bleu are well established. All these formal and informal processes reinforce the fact that elected officials are detached from the population and play the role of representatives of the capitalist class they rub elbows with everywhere. The democracy we have is not a neutral democracy, but a democracy that defends capitalism: a bourgeois democracy.

We must fight to replace this travesty of democracy with a workers’ socialist democracy.  In such a democracy, instead of having elected representatives stuffed with privileges that they enjoy for an entire term without question, elected representatives will be recallable at any time if the workers they represent are dissatisfied with their work, and their salaries will not exceed the average worker’s wage. This will ensure that workers always retain control over their representatives, and that the latter have the same interests as those they represent.

Such measures will scare away all the opportunists who seek only prestige and a comfortable life, rather than attracting them, as we see under capitalism. Marxists defend such measures today within the trade union movement, where we fight against the bureaucratic privileges of the movement’s leaders—but these principles should apply to the whole of society. To achieve this, capitalism must be overthrown, to be replaced by a socialist society in which the entire economy is under the democratic control of the workers.