Charest should learn to sweat the small stuff

His tax cut would have been bulletproof had he only sold it differently

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Time and again, Jean Charest gets the big picture right, then screws up on the small stuff. He's strong on policy, weak on process and packaging.

How did he get into this budget impasse? All by himself. He has managed to turn an historic gain for Quebec on the fiscal imbalance, which is entirely to his credit, into a political liability that could cost him his job.

On March 20, six days before the election, Charest took $2.2 billion of new equalization money from the feds, and turned it into a $700-million tax cut. The other $1.5 billion, two-thirds of the fiscal imbalance windfall, disappeared from the political radar.

Had he said in his March 20 speech: Two-thirds of this money is going to health care and education, and the remainder in a much-deserved tax cut for voters, he would have been bulletproof.

But a tax-cut promise, as a stand-alone presentation, only reminded voters of his previous broken promises on tax cuts, and left him no choice but to deliver on his new promise.

Then it came time to deliver on the promise in a budget in a minority legislature. As long as it looked as if Andre Boisclair would remain as Parti Quebecois leader for at least the first session, the budget was guaranteed safe passage. The PQ would never force an election in the middle of a leadership crisis. Even when it looked as if Gilles Duceppe would be running against Pauline Marois in a competitive race for the PQ leadership, there was no danger of the government being toppled on the budget.

But the moment that Duceppe withdrew, and Marois was acclaimed, the political calculation changed, or should have. Especially after a CROP poll showed 40 per cent of voters supported the PQ under Marois, against 30 per cent for ADQ and Mario Dumont, and only 25 per cent for the Liberals under Charest.

At that point, the budget should have been reconsidered. Dumont having already announced his opposition to something he hadn't even seen, it then became important for the government to obtain the PQ's support.

But Charest carried on regardless, delivering on the entire tax- cut promise opposed by both opposition parties, the ADQ saying the fiscal-imbalance money should go to paying down debt, with the PQ saying it should go to health and education, totally ignoring the fact two-thirds of the new money already did.

But it was Charest, in his March 20 presentation, who opened the door to that. He, and he alone, is to blame for the consequences.

Then, after Monique Jerome-Forget presented the budget last Thursday, Charest adopted an intransigent and belligerent tone in the legislature on Friday. He was far too hot, way too aggressive and completely over the top.

He said the impasse was the proof that minority governments don't work, when the voters want him, as premier, to make it work. It was a complete misread of the public mood and, quite sensibly, he has been back peddling on tone while holding the line on the tax cuts.

So far this week, Charest has caught two big breaks. First, on Monday, Le Devoir published a Leger poll that had the ADQ at 33 per cent, the PQ at 30 per cent and the Liberals at 28 per cent. As bad as it was for the Liberals, it wasn't much better for the other parties, certainly not for the PQ, 10 points lower than in the earlier CROP poll on the news of Marois's return. A no-election poll.

Then, yesterday, former judge Bernard Grenier released his long-awaited report on the Option Canada affair, and federal money floating around in the 1995 referendum. Turns out it was only half a million dollars, from one department, and the Quebec Liberals and Charest are totally blameless in the affair. Fizz.

The price of making a deal with the PQ just went down. And the solution is obvious. Pass the budget as is, and give the PQ the money it wants for students, seniors and regions in the supplementary estimates. A win-win.

It's just process, just small stuff. But this time, premier, you really need to get it right.

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