Charest to Harper: Don't screw up my election

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National Post, Friday, November 14, 2008

If Stephen Harper were consulting Jean Charest on next week's Speech from the Throne, the Quebec Premier's advice would be: Don't do anything to screw up my election.

For example, Ottawa has been making loud noises out of the Finance Department that Canada needs a national securities commission, rather than regulators in each province. This is an idea whose time has probably come, but which can probably wait until after the Quebec election on Dec. 8.

While Ontario and the other provinces would have no problem with it, Quebec certainly would, especially in the middle of an election campaign. In the real world, almost all the action is on the TSX, and regulated by the Ontario Securities Commission. But there is still a Montreal Exchange, now mostly a derivatives market, and the Quebec Securities Commission has oversight.

No Quebec government would ever agree to cede its authority over markets, least of all in the middle of an election campaign. And while a national securities paragraph in the Throne Speech would not create tabloid headlines, it would be a significant story nonetheless.

The first test of any Quebec premier is defending Quebec's interests, and you could count on Charest to jump to that defence. But the story would also be a gift to the Parti Quebecois, and the Harper government should not be in the business of helping the separatists.

Similarly, an elected Senate is one of Harper's favourite subjects, but it doesn't need to be in the Throne Speech. Quebec has another view, namely that Senate reform requires a constitutional amendment.

In other words, Quebec isn't prepared to have its 24 Senate seats, the ones guaranteed by the BNA Act, touched by anyone without its consent. Charest is prepared to take Ottawa to court on this.

This stuff should be a no-brainer, and would be if Harper and Charest were in regular contact, either in person or through their offices. But they're not. And there's the pity, because their relationship started off so well, with all the promise of being the best between a prime minister and Quebec premier since the era of excellence between Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa.

Who's to blame for this? Both sides.

In the first instance, Charest took all the fiscal imbalance money, $700-million from an additional $2.2-billion in transfers in the 2007 federal budget, and earmarked it entirely for a tax cut. This was in the last week of the previous provincial campaign, and it created huge blowback in English Canada, where Charest was seen as bribing his voters with their money.

Worse, Harper was completely blindsided by the announcement, and while he publicly defended Charest's right to do it, he was privately furious. Then, Harper appeared at an event with ADQ leader Mario Dumont in his riding of Riviere-du-Loup last December, while Charest was still in turnaround mode in a minority legislature. Charest was steamed for months.

They haven't really had a good conversation since then. Harper and Charest have shared two important public occasions, the Quebec 400 celebration in July and the Summit of La Francophonie last month. But at this week's First Ministers' Meeting in Ottawa, where the Quebec premier always sits to the PM's left, Harper spent most of the photo-op making small talk with Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, on his right. And in terms of contacts at the staff level, there has yet to be a single meeting between Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, who came on board in June, and Charest's Dan Gagnier. (Interestingly, they have this much in common: Both are former chiefs of staff to premiers at Queen's Park, Giorno to Mike Harris and Gagnier to David Peterson.)

Relations between Harper and Charest were further strained in the recent federal election, when the Premier was openly critical of the Conservative culture cuts and juvenile crime proposals -- a view clearly shared by the voters.

One federal Cabinet minister, asked if the federal government would be helping Charest out in the campaign, quipped that they would be helping him just as he had helped them.

Which is both short-sighted and stupid. Quebec's election is a two-horse race between the federalists and the separatists. If Harper does anything to help the PQ now, he will pay for it later. And not just in Quebec.

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