05/02/2012 11:21 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec finance minister: election will settle tuition spat, 'within a year'

MONTREAL - There are suggestions from the Charest government that it detects a possible solution to the student unrest rattling Quebec — at the ballot box, in an election campaign.

Premier Jean Charest has repeatedly downplayed talk of a spring election when asked whether it might resolve the impasse between his government, determined to impose tuition hikes, and students determined to stop them.

But his finance minister went a step further Wednesday. Because there has been no sign of concession from student groups, he said, the dispute would have to be a campaign issue, "within a year."

"There's a place to settle these things, and that's with an election," said Finance Minister Raymond Bachand. "There's a party that wants free tuition, (Quebec Solidaire); another that wants to freeze it, (the Parti Quebecois); and there are two, (the Liberals and CAQ) that think we need to finance our universities."

Re-elected in December 2008, the Liberal government is into the fourth year of its mandate but does not actually need to face the electorate until the end of next year.

The tuition dispute appears to be a rarity in Quebec politics: a hot issue in which an otherwise deeply unpopular Charest government might actually have the approval of the general public.

Polls have suggested Quebecers support the tuition hikes. They also suggested, however, that Quebecers wanted to see some sort of compromise.

Perhaps with that mixed sentiment in mind, the two main political parties appear to have been inching toward the centre in recent days to shore up their moderate credentials.

After months of refusing to budge, the Charest government last week offered to slow down the implementation of the hikes, and introduce them over seven years instead of five. Students quickly rejected that offer.

Now the Parti Quebecois, staunchly in the student camp, is taking tentative steps in the other direction, and showing some willingness to increase tuition.

While the party favours a freeze for now, it would convene a summit on education funding if elected. The PQ announced Wednesday that it would propose at that summit very modest tuition increases, indexed to the rate of inflation.

The government's plan would see a much bigger increase, of at least 75 per cent over the coming years, with more inflation-linked increases later. Those increases would still leave Quebec with some of the country's lowest tuition rates.

A former PQ premier waded Wednesday into the debate Wednesday — and he wasn't siding with his old party.

Lucien Bouchard was among several well-known personalities to sign a public letter asking Quebecers to support the government, arguing that tuition hikes were necessary to make up for a general freeze over the years.

Bouchard was premier in the 1990s when the PQ also contemplated fee hikes — then backpedalled in the face of student protests. He was always considered one of the more conservative members of the pro-independence party.

The letter says there's a limit to the burden taxpayers can carry with respect to providing social services; it also suggests recent street protests are an outsized reaction to the hikes.

"The scope of the disturbances currently being imposed on Quebec society bears no relationship to the impact of the government decision," said the letter, published in newspapers Wednesday. It was signed by a dozen people, including ex-Liberal and PQ treasury board presidents, Monique Jerome-Forget and Joseph Facal.

Current PQ members have been visible supporters of the student movement, even wearing its trademark red squares on their lapels.

Premier Jean Charest gleefully pointed out Bouchard's contribution to the letter during a heated exchange in the national assembly today.

And he made it clear that when the next election rolls around he intends to pin that fabric symbol, figuratively speaking, onto his opponent.

"The red square she's wearing today, she will wear forever in the mind of Quebecers," Charest said.

"They will know she shirked her responsibilities."

He was responding to a question from PQ Leader Pauline Marois, who was demanding a mediated solution to the dispute.

She also began distancing herself, ever so slightly, from calls for a freeze — by saying the red square she was wearing represented a broader philosophy, not flat tuition specifically.

"I'd like to remind the premier that the red square means prioritizing education, it means equity and social justice," Marois said.

Aside from Bachand's comments, the letter published in Thursday's papers also argued that the current fight will ultimately be settled by Quebec voters, not in police-protester showdowns. A provincial vote must be held sometime between this spring and late 2013.

"Eventually, elections will give citizens the opportunity to weigh in on the debate," the letter concluded.

"This is the way democratic societies resolve their conflicts and make their choices: in the polling station, not the street."