Premier scores big with tax-cut promise - but will it be enough?

Expect the Liberals to play up their leader's strengths during final days

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another $2.3 billion for Quebec in federal transfer payments, $1.7 billion of extra equalization payments, $1 billion under the old formula and $700 million under the new one.

What to do with the windfall, days before a Quebec election? There's money for health care, higher education, the environment and other program spending. That's the first $1.4 billion of transfers and the "old" equalization increase.

As for the last $700 million under the "new" equalization increase, Premier Jean Charest announced yesterday he was giving it back to the voters in the form of a middle-class tax cut.

Taken together with the $250-million tax cut announced in the February budget, that comes to $950 million in promised tax cuts. For rounding purposes, call it a billion.

That works out to an annual tax cut of $750 for a middle-class family, or about $15 a week.

It allows Charest to say that on his watch, Quebecers will move from being the highest taxed in Canada, to only the fifth-highest taxed, not from worst to first, but certainly from worst to the middle of the pack.

And it definitely gives Charest a second-day pop on the fiscal-imbalance story. The first day was one of duelling soundbites, with the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois saying it's our money anyway, Mario Dumont saying it was all thanks to Stephen Harper, and no thanks to Charest, and Charest saying he got the money.

Who's right? Charest is. While the PQ and Bloc have worked this file for years, it's Charest and Harper who have unblocked it. Does anyone think for a moment that Harper would give a nickel of extra federal funding to Andre Boisclair or Gilles Duceppe? Was Mario Dumont at the table? Harper and Charest chose this file to make the case that federalism works for Quebec and together they have delivered the goods for Quebec.

As for the Day 2 story, Boisclair was still saying it wasn't enough, and while Dumont was finally costing his campaign promises, Charest trumped them both with his tax-cut announcement.

Promising a tax cut is usually a low-risk proposition. But in Charest's case, it's high risk, because it recalls his broken 2003 promises to cut taxes by $1 billion a year. There is, as Boisclair hastened to point out yesterday, a credibility issue in play here.

But the voters are inclined to ask two questions: What have you done for me lately? And what will you do for me tomorrow?

In answer to the first, Charest has been running on his record, and in spite of a strong economy, that's an uphill struggle against a dissatisfaction level above 50 per cent.

In answer to the second, Charest is promising to put $750 a year back in the pockets of every middle-class family.

One looks back, the other looks ahead, which is where the Liberals needs to go in the closing days of this very strange campaign. There hasn't been a serious discussion of issues, not even on the question of another referendum. There haven't been many big rallies, and, thus, very little excitement. The leaders' most crucial appearances have been on the Radio-Canada and TVA interview shows, Tout le monde en parle and Madame, monsieur, poser votre question. Daily news conferences have become gotcha games played by journalists who can't claim their work has illuminated the voters' choice. And Charest, the best campaigner of his generation, has campaigned to his abilities only in fits and starts.

Charest is the first to admit "goaling" the record is a new challenge for him, while Dumont has surfed on his free media, and Boisclair has simply campaigned to survive.

Often in the last week of a campaign, the fundamentals of the first week reassert themselves as voters finally focus on their choice. And an SES Research poll of 500 Quebecers, conducted on the two nights following the debate last week, indicate a clear advantage to the Liberals on leadership and party strengths.

Pollster Nik Nanos tested five leadership attributes: vision, competence, trust, shared views and character. Charest won them all, with Dumont a solid second and Boisclair a distant third in every one. Charest won competence and character by a 2-1 margin over Boisclair.

On party strength, the Liberals had the best team by 49 per cent to 23 per cent for the PQ and 7.4 per cent for the ADQ; had the best platform by 36 per cent to 23 per cent and 15 per cent; and were seen as the best defender of Quebec's interests by 42 per cent to 28 per cent and 13 percent.

These are themes you can expect to hear from Charest in the closing days because they play to comparative advantage for the Liberals. He also needs to play to his own strengths as a campaigner. Let Charest be Charest.

 
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