Charest clears deck for election call

Harper expected to smooth way with good-news budget for Quebec

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Quebec election train is in the station, but it hasn't left yet.

Everything is in place for Jean Charest to pull the trigger for an early election on March 26. But he retains the option of going later in the spring, at the end of March for the beginning of May.

It's the premier's prerogative to call the election date at his pleasure, one of the perks of power. It's part of the fun of being premier, toying with the other parties and the media on the timing of an election. For the opposition parties, it's the best argument for electoral reform and fixed election dates, as are now the case in Ontario and British Columbia.

It's also their way of acknowledging they don't have enough money, or enough candidates. In other words, they're not ready to go. Charest's Liberals have deep pockets and have already nominated about 100 candidates for the 125 seats in the National Assembly. And they've got the momentum.

Two items on the spring timetable have been cleared from the track of a winter campaign. The first was the Liberal policy convention, scheduled for March 23-25, which has now been rolled back to a one-day general council meeting on Feb. 17. The second is the spring session of the legislature, due to begin March 13. Once Charest recalls the National Assembly for a good news budget on Feb. 20, the train will be leaving the station for an election on March 26 or April 2.

Whether the Quebec election is sooner or later, there's another date that will figure significantly into the campaign either way - and that's March 20. That's the date of the federal budget, when Jim Flaherty will deliver cash to redress the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. The prime minister formally put this marker down in his agenda-setting speech for the session yesterday, when he pledged to resolve the fiscal imbalance in the 2007 budget.

This date works both ways for Charest. In a March 26 scenario, the federal budget will be a big headline, and a very helpful one for him, in the last week of the campaign. Already, Quebec is due to receive an additional $1 billion under the existing equalization formula, and is expected to get another $500 million in the new formula recommended by the O'Brien task force appointed by the Martin government. That's $1.5 billion, a real number. Gilles Duceppe and Andre Boisclair will say it's not enough, so tell us something we don't know.

For Charest, this will be a significant advantage in making the case for federalism. Normally, the Quebec Liberals play the referendum card in the final week of the campaign. The question is always: Do you want another referendum, yes or no? This time Charest might not need it if he's able to say, "See, federalism works. Oh, and by the way, promise made, promise kept."

There are two other spending envelopes in the federal budget that will be notable in Quebec - the environment and post-secondary education. There's going to be some money for climate change, and Quebec has been demanding more than $300 million from the feds to help meet its Kyoto commitments. As for higher education, chronically under-funded because of Quebec's ridiculous 13-year tuition freeze, it could use a fresh injection of federal funding for university research.

All of which will play well for Charest into his election, whether it's six days or six weeks later.

But both Duceppe and Liberal leader Stephane Dion will have a decision to make on the budget, from opposite sides of the divide on fiscal federalism.

Apart from saying $1.5 billion is inadequate, how is Duceppe going to vote against more money for Quebec in the budget? Nobody's taking seriously his demand of $3.9 billion as Quebec's share. It doesn't have any traction.

As for Dion, it isn't about the money, it's about the very existence of the fiscal imbalance, which he has always denied. Since becoming Liberal leader, his position has moved slightly from "prove it" to "define it."

If he doesn't support the fiscal- imbalance measures in the budget, Dion will be deemed unhelpful to Charest less than a week before an election. And like Duceppe, he'll be hard put to explain himself to Quebec voters when the time comes for a federal election.

There's something else Harper said yesterday that's meant to be helpful to Charest, to the extent that federalism will be an issue in the Quebec campaign.

Harper clearly said: "We'll respect their (provincial) jurisdictions" and "focus on core federal responsibilities."

You don't hear that from Ottawa every day.

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