Leaders wait breathlessly for the word from Jim Flaherty

Federal budget and fiscal imbalance will be main campaign story next week

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The Gazette, Friday, March 16, 2007

With the leaders' debate behind them, the three main parties in the Quebec election are waiting for weekend polls that might shape the strategy, and certainly the spin, going into the final week of the Quebec campaign.

For what it's worth, my sense is that the Liberals are clinging to a small lead in the lower mid-30s, one that doesn't include what Robert Bourassa called the ballot box bonus of three or four points.

And then, within the margin of error, either the Parti Quebecois or Action democratique du Quebec could be in second place in the high 20s.

Should Mario Dumont and the ADQ move past the PQ into second place, that would be a devastating blow for the already battered morale of the PQ. And should Dumont cross the 30-per-cent threshold, he'd be in second place for sure, with a minority government a very real prospect.

A lot of the positioning for the final week will depend on how the numbers shake out in a Leger Marketing poll expected tomorrow.

A lot will also depend on how the fiscal-imbalance numbers turn up in Monday's federal budget. It's unprecedented for a federal budget to come in the middle, much less at the end, of a Quebec campaign. But Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says he had to get it in by the end of the fiscal year on March 31, and Monday is the first day back from a two-week break. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

The budget was always scheduled for next week, originally as a setup for a Quebec budget into a spring election. It was the collapse of the PQ's numbers over the holidays and in January that caused Premier Jean Charest to move up his election call from April to February.

The budget, and the fiscal imbalance, will be the main story of the campaign for at least two days next week. Charest will take the credit for getting Stephen Harper to acknowledge the existence of the fiscal imbalance, always denied by the previous Liberal government, including Stephane Dion when he was minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

PQ leader Andre Boisclair will say whatever it is, it isn't enough. Mario Dumont will say there has never been a Quebec premier who asked for so little out of Ottawa (even though there has rarely been a Quebec premier who got so much).

By mid-week, the three leaders should be moving into closing arguments. For the Liberals, their high card would normally be the anxiety about the referendum that would follow the election of a PQ government. But if the PQ slips to third in the polls, their prospects for government will be remote, and the referendum card practically beside the point.

Another kind of uncertainty might then be in the offing - the uncertainty of a minority government. In that case, Charest would argue he needed a majority for economic stability and for the certainty of avoiding a referendum any time soon.

There won't be too much discussion of the parties' platforms on health care, daycare, education, university tuition fees, the economy or the environment.

There has been precious little illumination on any of these issues, and the media are as much to blame as the parties. Both have been caught up in BlackBerry-driven tactics, back and forth between buses, to the virtual exclusion of debate on public policy.

To attend any of the leaders' daily news conferences is to attend a drive-by shooting. The press corps are not only skeptical, but disrespectful. Daycares are better behaved, precisely because daycare kids learn limits and boundaries.

Journalism is surely the only profession where inappropriate behaviour is not only tolerated, but encouraged. All the parties have reason to be discouraged about the difficulties of getting their message out over the media noise.

In such a toxic atmosphere, it's no wonder Dumont thought he could get away with a cheap stunt like waving a Transport Department memo at the leaders' debate, and practically blaming Charest for the collapse of the Highway 19 overpass. Next, the premier will be blamed for the Dawson shooting.

It says something about the decline of public discourse in Quebec when a leader's most important campaign appearance is on a talk show, Tout le monde en parle, which attracts 1.8 million viewers on Sunday nights.

Last week, the producers thought it was hilarious that they blindsided Dumont by rolling out a blackboard with the other parties' promises all costed, and his own a blank slate he couldn't fill in. Who knows what they have in store for Charest this week? But what is gained, other than a few cheap laughs, by demeaning our leaders in this way?

For the most content-free campaign in memory, the media bear much of the blame.

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