PQ's troubles might move up next election

Charest could be tempted to go early to capitalize on discord

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The Gazette, Friday, February 2, 2007

Here's your federal-provincial political calendar leading to a Quebec election call expected at the beginning of April:

On March 13, the National Assembly is due back for its spring session. At some point before Jean Charest pulls the plug, he wants to present a good-news budget in the legislature. It doesn't need to be adopted, but Charest wants it on the table as a talking point for the campaign.

But before that, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will bring in the federal budget, likely on March 20, and will address the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces - and particularly as it concerns Quebec, in time for the provincial campaign.

Here's the number: $1.5 billion for Quebec, $1 billion more as its share of equalization in the next fiscal year under the existing equalization formula, and another $500 million under the new formula recommended by the O'Brien task force named by the previous Martin government.

Charest can then do two things. First, he can put these numbers in his budget, probably the following week. Second, he can say he and Stephen Harper have redressed the fiscal imbalance, which both have promised to do. For that matter, Charest and Harper can dress it up in a formal signing ceremony at the majestic Salon Rouge of the National Assembly.

Then, at the very end of March, the Quebec Liberals have their biennial policy convention. And Charest could drop a writ anytime after that. Normally, Quebec campaigns run five weeks, so that would take an election to May 7. Or perhaps May 14, after adoption of the Quebec budget. The day after Mother's Day. Perfect. Right after one of the biggest family gatherings of the year.

This is how an election time line looks on paper. But there's a complication - Andre Boisclair's flameout. The Parti Quebecois is in a free fall. This week's bad polls, and Boisclair's continuous gaffes, have led to an unprecedented leadership crisis in the PQ. No matter how they paper it over in the caucus that ends today, the Pequistes know they are in trouble with this guy.

Never has any PQ leader received the kind of negative coverage that Boisclair has in the last two weeks. It began a week ago Monday with a devastating front-page column in La Presse by the paper's longtime Quebec correspondent, Denis Lessard. One PQ member of the National Assembly reported that talking to colleagues after their Christmas rounds, not one had met anyone who had a good word to say about Boisclair.

Since then, Boisclair has been hit by a perfect storm of negatives. First there was the Segolene Royal walk-by endorsement of sovereignty in Paris. That resulted in negative stories about Boisclair going hat-in-hand to the French, and Charest replying the future of Quebec will be settled in Quebec by Quebecers alone. Then there's been push back from Quebec's big unions, a core PQ constituency, to Boisclair's statement he didn't see himself getting too friendly with them.

Then there was his musing about taking the crucifix out of the Assembly, where it has hung over the speaker's chair for, uh, centuries. A gift to Mario Dumont on the issue of "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities.

And then this week's two polls by CROP and Leger Marketing, both of which put the Liberals ahead of the PQ - 37-34 in the CROP, with the ADQ at 14 per cent. And 34-32 according to Leger, with Dumont riding a wave in the Quebec City region up to 24 per cent (a number nobody believes, but still, it's part of a trend away from the PQ).

That was enough to trigger crisis headlines across the province. Bernard Landry, who never really left, offered to come back. From his Colombey les Deux Eglises on the banks of the Richelieu River, he placed himself once more in reserve of the Republic. His grasping was in such bad taste that the PQ caucus immediately rallied behind Boisclair.

On Wednesday, La Presse ran a banner headline, "Deep Freeze," over a picture of Boisclair framed by a funereal black box. Boisclair promised to "pull up my socks" and do better.

The events of the last two weeks might, if anything, have accelerated Boisclair's slide. If so, it will show up in Charest's internal tracking, and could present him with another decision. As neat as a spring scenario looks, Boisclair's troubles might force the premier to go sooner. Maybe anytime soon.

As was famously said of winter works programs, why wait until spring when you can do it now?

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