Governance austerity in Montreal
In this post, Gregoire Autin reports the findings from the exploratory research in Montreal, carried out as part of the Collaborative Governance under Austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies. In developing this case study, Gregoire worked with Professors Roger Keil from York University and Pierre Hamel from the University of Montreal.
In Montréal, we started our exploration of the relationships between governance institutions and austerity measures by interviewing executive members of important collaborative institutions. This was an interesting starting point as it allowed us to gather insiders’ views of collaboration at the metropolitan scale. We conducted 11 interviews and our questions were largely oriented towards meanings and origins of “austerity” on one side and the forms, functions and practices of collaboration in, with and against austerity measures on the other. While using the general comparative framework built for the research, we had to adapt and take into account the specific context of Montréal.
One of the main specificities is that the city was not really hit by the crisis in 2008 in particular; it has rather undergone different consecutive and ongoing crises since the 1970s. Consequently, austerity is never presented nor understood as a necessary policy in times of crisis. It is rather understood as a policy (and a politics) of state restructuring, rooted in a conservative and neoliberal ideology. Many respondents made a distinction between a supposedly necessary austerity in countries undergoing economic crises such as Greece or Spain, for example, and austerity measures rooted in a conservative ideology such as the ones implemented by the federal government under former Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Harper (2006-2015) and by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal provincial government. As such, the respondents’ understanding of austerity is strongly related to a deep dynamic of state restructuring in the context of a historic crisis of the Welfare-State. As an ideology, austerity – usually called “rigour” by the politicians in power – is upheld by conservative politicians, be it at the federal level of government under Harper’s reign or at the provincial level with Couillard’s government (in power since 2014).
One important aspect we investigated, and which remains to be further explored, is the articulation, at a local scale, of the different levels of government and decision-making. In Montréal, the history of collaboration is a long one: these different levels of government have always had to collaborate to some extent on different aspects. The three tiers of government – federal, provincial and municipal – don’t necessarily follow the same ideological approach. Thus, when the provincial administration undergoes serious austerity measures and cuts different programs, the municipal administration has to choose between increasing their participation in those programs (e.g. in public transportation), in order to supplement what has been cut at the provincial level, or maintain their financial participation and ask the other tiers of government to maintain commitments. This implies that the municipal government’s importance, at the local level, as a financing and regulating power, increases with the relative withdrawal of the provincial and federal governments.
But collaboration operates also at a different level, not only between the three tiers of government but also with actors of civil society, community organisations, the business sectors and trade unions. This is one of the notable features of Montréal where such tripartite consultations and collaborations have existed for a long time. Many community organisations get caught up between managing and contesting austerity measures which puts them in an uncomfortable place of tension: this fine line between providing a service and becoming a substitute to the state must always be walked by the different actors involved in collaboration. This is a sign of the conflicts and tensions of the state restructuring process going on in Canada and Quebec in general and more precisely in Montréal. After the failure of two successive urban regimes (from the 1950s to the 1970s and from the 1980s to 2010), Montréal is still in search of a new regime. It is interesting to see how collaboration mechanisms are redefined within austerity measures and how this impacts on the willingness of different social, economic and political actors to build a new urban regime.
Austerity measures are the harshest for the poor and underprivileged particularly in the health and education sectors. Reducing financing opportunities for the different institutions and community organisations, cutting in different programs, these measures usually target the welfare system and old social solidarity mechanisms. Even though it is difficult to predict what will come out of these austerity politics, it is still the poorer, the most underprivileged and the newest immigrants who will suffer most of it.
While those in power at the provincial level share a consensus around the “need” to reduce the public debt and, at the municipal level, the mayor has been willing to reduce its’ administration, in accord with the austerity ideology, other actors, notably the trade unions, community organisations and student movements, are actively contesting these measures. One of the main challenges these contesting actors face is coordination between them: in other words, mobilisation against austerity seems to be more sectorial than converging. Each actor faces their own problems and contradictions and this hinders the opportunity for collaboration and convergence in a movement against austerity.
This exploratory research allowed us to draw a general portrait of collaboration at the municipal level in Montreal, to look at the specificity of the context and, at the same time, the deeper trends and dynamics underlying austerity measures and programs and changes in collaboration patterns. What is particularly relevant to note is that austerity measures are not a new thing, born out of the 2008 crisis: it is rather rooted in a long historical process of state restructuring and redefinition of social solidarity and state legitimacy. It is in this perspective that we will have to continue analysing and studying collaborative governance and austerity in Montréal. The future research will focus more specifically on social practices looking at the way neighbourhood roundtables, managed by community actors, are promoting social values when negotiating or adapting to austerity measures.
Gregoire Autin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the Université de Montréal.