Political poker

To avoid an election, the Liberals must cut a deal with one of the opposition leaders - and the most likely partner is Mario Dumont

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The Gazette, Monday, May 28, 2007

Now what? Well, the opposition parties have five days to come to their senses, and the Charest government has four days to cut a deal with one of them on the budget.

Mario Dumont tipped his hand weeks before the budget that his Action democratique du Quebec members would be voting against it, especially if it featured a middle-class tax cut rather than making a symbolic down payment on the debt.

It's the Parti Quebecois that decided to play the joker in the deck when Finance Minister Monique Jerome-Forget turned up the budget cards last Thursday. With snapback poll numbers showing them vaulting from third to first place on the strength of Pauline Marois's arrival as leader, the PQ evidently feels emboldened to force an election, just three months after the last one, even if it means a summer campaign.

Welcome to Vegas on the St. Lawrence, and the biggest game of political poker ever played in the National Assembly.

Unless someone is bluffing, unless someone folds, unless Jerome-Forget deals new cards, the Charest government stands to be defeated on the budget.

In the Westminster tradition, a budget defeat is a question of treasury, a question of confidence. In a certain sense, no representation without taxation.

There would be only two constitutional alternatives. One would be dissolution of the minority legislature and the immediate issuing of an election writ at the request of the premier. The other, on the tendering of the government's resignation, would be for the lieutenant-governor to invite Opposition leader Dumont to form a government and meet the legislature, possibly with the support of the PQ.

This happened in Ontario after the 1985 election, when the Conservatives held the most seats. But the Liberals under David Peterson formed a government with the support of the NDP under Bob Rae. There was a formal two-year pact, after which Peterson called an election and was returned to Queen's Park with a majority.

But these are murky constitutional waters. If the premier asks for a writ, the lieutenant-governor would be hard pressed to refuse him. Yet the overriding constitutional question, the only one really, is the confidence of the House. If Dumont has it, in the form of a deal with the PQ, then he can form a government.

But Mario and Pauline are an unlikely pair. There's a right-left ideological divide that would be difficult to bridge in an inaugural address and budget.

And the PQ doesn't want a pact, it wants a writ.

That will happen only if there's a combination of stupidity by Jean Charest, and stubbornness by Mario Dumont. They are the two with the most to lose in a snap election.

Charest, obviously, would lose the government. And Dumont would lose his stature as the leader of a government-in-waiting, one whose team needs to get known and to win the trust of voters in the legislature.

So how do they make a deal?

Charest can't back off on the tax cut, not after breaking the tax cut promises of his first term. But he might be able to split the difference with Dumont, and propose an amendment to the budget allocating some money to debt repayment.

Think of the tax cut as the candy mint and debt payment as the breath mint. Two mints in one.

If there's one thing Quebec City has in abundance, it's good restaurants with dark corners and private salons where emissaries from the government and opposition camps can get together and put a little water in their wine. A deal on the budget, following the settlement of the transit strike because of Dumont's insistence on back-to-work legislation, would make a pretty good opening session for Mario.

As for the PQ, it just died and went to heaven. Only a month ago, they were condemned to third place under a leader, Andre Boisclair, who was going nowhere.

Now, just on the news that Marois is taking charge, they've rebounded to first place in the polls. Of course the voters would be angry at them for forcing an election, rather than making the legislature work. Of course Marois would look like an opportunist. But so what? She has nothing to lose.

It's up to Charest and Dumont to prevent her from turning opportunism into opportunity.

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