Quebec's 'extreme political poker'

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National Post, Saturday, May 26, 2007

The life of Quebec's first minority legislature in more than a century and a quarter hangs in the balance of the budget in its very first session. The government could fall on a tax cut. Go figure.

In March, Jean Charest's government promised a $950-million middle-class tax cut in the last week of the recent provincial election campaign, $700-million of it deriving from equalization payments from Ottawa to address the fiscal imbalance.

The promise of a tax cut only served to remind voters that Jean Charest had broken a $1-billion-ayear tax-cut promise in his first mandate. In the rest of the country, it angered Canadians who were paying for a campaign promise in Quebec with their tax dollars. Rather than bribing Quebecers with their own money, Charest proposed to bribe them with other people's money.

But having broken a tax-cut promise in his first mandate, he could hardly do so again in his second, even in a minority legislature where the opposition parties opposed a tax cut for their own reasons.

From the right, the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) prefers that the money go as a symbolic down payment on Quebec's debt, which at 42% of GDP is on the threshold of alarming. From the left, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) prefers more program spending on health care and social services, which already consume nearly 40% of Quebec City's budget, and are slated to received two-thirds of new spending in any case. Both the ADQ and the PQ agree the budget is "irresponsible," and accuse Charest of squandering the fiscal-imbalance windfall on a tax cut.

On this, they wouldn't get much argument from the Harper Conservatives, who were blindsided by Charest's campaign promise. While the Premier's use of the money did not raise any constitutional issue, Harper was left to deal with serious political blowback from the rest of the country. As Finance Minister Jim Flaherty put it in an interview with the magazine Policy Options last month: "From a political perspective, it looks like it didn't help Mr. Charest. It may have in fact harmed his party, and it was not helpful in the rest of the country, certainly from comments that were made across Canada."

That being said, Charest was stuck with a tax-cut promise to overburdened Quebec taxpayers. The amount of the cut would hardly be insignificant. A family of four with a single earner taking in $65,000 would receive a tax cut of 7.5%, or nearly $600. A family earning $100,000 would receive a tax cut of $1,024, on top of a $727 cut in the federal budget, for a total of $1,751 in tax cuts next year. That's about $34 a week, hardly chump change.

As long as Andre Boisclair was leading the PQ, a third-place party in a leadership crisis, the government was in no imminent danger of falling. The PQ was in no hurry for an election, and the budget was guaranteed to sail through the National Assembly.

But Boisclair's post-election departure followed by the coronation of Pauline Marois shook up the polls in a big way. The PQ rebounded from third to first place, vaulting over Mario Dumont and the ADQ, and leaving Charest's Liberals a distant third.

Dumont's opposition to the budget had been signalled weeks in advance. He would only be doing his duty as opposition leader, he said -- which is to say: opposing. When the PQ, with the obvious approval of Marois, announced last Thursday that it, too, would oppose the budget, the whole game changed to what La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal called "extreme political poker."

With their snap-back lead in the polls, Marois and the PQ have nothing to lose from forcing a quick election and everything to gain. They could go from third party to government, in a heartbeat.

It's Charest, as premier, and Dumont as premier-in-waiting, who have the most to lose. It's up to them to get together this coming week before Friday's budget vote and see to it that Marois doesn't get that opportunity.

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