Quebec election will come before the federal one

Goodies from Ottawa will allow Charest to go to the polls after good-news budget

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The Gazette, Friday, December 22, 2006

Who goes to the polls first in 2007, Quebecers in a provincial election, or all Canadians in a national campaign?

Answer, Quebec d'abord, Ottawa later.

It's setting up nicely for Jean Charest to bring the legislature back for a good-news budget in March, followed immediately by an election in April, four years to the month since he came to power. And it's very much in Stephen Harper's interest, as well as Canada's, that Charest win a second term in office. It's very hard to quantify, but it's a political fact that each benefits from the success of the other.

Harper has two big cards to play in Charest's favour; the first is classical federalism and respecting the constitutional division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. The second is fiscal federalism, and the distribution of cash between Ottawa and the provinces.

The prime minister has already delivered on a promised role for Quebec at UNESCO, the United Nations education and cultural organization. Then came the resolution in the House recognizing Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. Harper has also pledged not to invade exclusive provincial jurisdictions with the federal spending power without the approval of a majority of the provinces. This plays well not only in Quebec, but equally in Alberta.

On fiscal federalism, Harper and Charest will reach an understanding on the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. Just yesterday, Ottawa put out its financial results for the first seven months of the fiscal year through October, and it recorded a year-to-date surplus of $5.8 billion, putting the feds on track for a surplus of about $10 billion.

Transfers or equalization increases to the provinces to close the fiscal gap won't be anything like the $3.9 billion demanded by the Bloc Quebecois, but anything over $1 billion as Quebec's share would be a real number, enough for Harper and Charest to say "problem solved." As inadequate as the Bloc might deem this to be, they'd find themselves in a very bad place if they voted against it in the federal budget.

All these developments will allow Harper to say he is delivering the goods for Quebecers, and Charest to say he is defending the interests of Quebecers - the litmus test of leadership for any Quebec premier.

Moreover, Charest will be able to say that federalism works on his watch, starting with the creation of the Council of the Federation, which he proposed in the last campaign as the successor to the premiers' conference.

Though he was decidedly out of favour a year ago, Charest has enjoyed a strong 2006. His "unfavourables" have come down from 70 per cent to 53 per cent in the latest CROP poll, where the Liberals were again competitive with the Parti Quebecois, though still trailing 39 to 35 per cent, and by a lot more than that among francophones who constitute 85 per cent of the Quebec electorate.

But that was before a blizzard of good-news announcements in the run-up to the holidays. Last week, Charest announced Quebec's one-third participation in a $1.8-billion U.S. Alcan expansion in the Saguenay. They might not like it in the business columns, but in the Saguenay, it is the talk of the region. Then last weekend, Charest rode into the city on the new train from St. Jerome, surrounded by smiling commuters. There was even a Santa Claus on board. Radio-Canada gave it two minutes of positive coverage on its main newscast.

From Ottawa, Harper helped out with $350 million for a $1.5 billion Pratt &Whitney aircraft engine project for its plant on the South Shore, and this week announced federal approval for the Rupert and Eastmain hydro projects at James Bay, not the project of the century to be sure, but certainly of the decade.

Meanwhile in the National Assembly, Charest is clearly the dominant figure in the match-up with Andre Boisclair. When the Parti Quebecois leader called the premier a liar in the Assembly last week, and then tried to spell it out, Charest replied that the opposition leader's tone betrayed a lack of judgment and maturity.

"It's one thing to speak your mind," Charest said, "it's another to say the first thing that pops into your head."

Boisclair retorted that Charest's comments were wounding and that as to his judgment, he'd never had to resign, as the premier once had in Ottawa, for calling a judge. This brought Liberal House Leader Jacques Dupuis to his feet with the comment "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

This is going to be fun.

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