Bloc in a box

Harper's $350 million for climate-change projects here means Duceppe can't vote against budget without hurting Quebec

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The silence was eloquent. On Monday morning, Stephen Harper and Jean Charest appeared together to announce that Quebec would receive $350 million for climate-change projects as its share of Ottawa's new $1.5 billion Eco-Trust initiative.

At Monday's afternoon's question period, the opposition parties didn't ask a single question about climate change, the issue that has thoroughly dominated the House for weeks.

The announcement was moved up from the federal budget, and was clearly designed to give Charest a boost in his pre-writ phase before his early election call expected a week from today.

Harper and Charest were all smiles. The $350 million is even more than the $328 million Quebec has been asking, and the Bloc Quebecois demanding, as its share of climate change funding. Charest joked that the numbers were adjusted for inflation.

Was the timing tied to the election? In a minority House, Charest observed, Harper's government could fall at any time. Not that election, Charest was told, your election. Oh, that election. There will, Charest allowed "be an announcement when there's an announcement." Is he having fun, or what?

Make no mistake. It's on. And there will be more good news for Quebec in the federal budget, tentatively scheduled for March 20. It could still be moved up to Feb. 27, just before the two-week parliamentary recess, so that good news on the fiscal imbalance and post-secondary education comes in the second week of the Quebec campaign rather than the last week, giving voters more time to digest the fact that Charest is delivering the goods for Quebec.

Quebec will receive another $1 billion in equalization under the existing formula, and an additional $500 million under a new one recommended by the O'Brien task force appointed by the previous Martin government. That's $1.5 billion, enough for Harper and Charest to declare the problem solved.

The climate-change funding, like the fiscal-imbalance money, is tied to the budget.

And that presents a dilemma for both Stephane Dion and Gilles Duceppe.

If they vote against the budget, how will they explain to Quebec voters that they opposed the top two items on Quebec's federal-provincial agenda?

Dion has built his leadership brand on the environment, and he's trying to rebuild a Liberal trademark battered by the sponsorship scandal.

Voting against climate-change funding, to say nothing of the $1.5 billion to redress the fiscal imbalance, would be a big problem for Dion, starting with his own Quebec caucus.

But it's Duceppe who's really in trouble.

He has been on his feet for months demanding the $328 million for Quebec to meet its Kyoto targets. Suddenly, here's the money, and then some.

How can Duceppe then turn around and vote against something he has been asking for?

Duceppe has been on a bad roll for months. First he put up 2015 as a date for Quebec achieving sovereignty, a purely theoretical date inasmuch as he previously declined the leadership of the Parti Quebecois. Then he got outwitted by Harper on the Quebecois nation thing and was forced to support its recognition within a united Canada. Then the Bloc threatened a motion of censure on Afghanistan, with Duceppe demanding more emphasis on the non-military aspects of the mission, especially with Quebec soldiers about to rotate as the relief. Nothing has been heard of it since.

And for months Duceppe has put up a preposterous number, $3.9 billion, as Quebec's share of adjustments to the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. His problem is that no one in Quebec is buying into it. Now that the number is known to be $1.5 billion, a real and defensible figure, Duceppe is saying "make me an offer." Except, he's not at the table. Harper and Charest are.

Meantime, Duceppe's poll numbers are tracking south, to 31 per cent in last weekend's Leger Marketing poll.

That just happens to be the same voting intention for Andre Boisclair and the PQ in The Gazette's Leger poll yesterday, which puts Charest's Liberals five points ahead at 36 per cent and Mario Dumont's ADQ in the game at 21 per cent.

Both Boisclair and Duceppe better get used to the idea of good news coming out of Ottawa in the next few weeks.

Duceppe has a decision to make. Will he support the budget, or not?

He simply cannot vote against climate-change funding and fiscal-imbalance transfers for Quebec. And he can't go to an election with poll numbers that show him losing as many as 20 seats out of the 51 he now holds. And yesterday Harper put the heat on Duceppe in question period, asking the Bloc leader how could be not support the additional money for Quebec,

While the NDP now holds the mathematical balance of power, Duceppe can take back the political balance of power by supporting the budget. It's in his own best interest for him to do so.

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