Charest and Harper still need each other

Provincial Liberals form the only federalist party in Quebec

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Gone are the days when Stephen Harper and Jean Charest were new best friends. What began as a special relationship between prime minister and premier during Harper's first year in office has deteriorated badly in the second.

In the beginning, they had so many meetings, and so many joint events, that they were running as an entry. At one tribute dinner where they both spoke in 2006, Charest joked: "Prime Minister, nice to see you - again." They did joint policy announcements on hot-button issues like climate-change funding. They even did a highway announcement together (we have long since lost count of the number of times Autoroute 35, the Montreal beltway, has been announced).

The summit of the relationship was reached in the federal budget last March when Harper delivered $2.3 billion in new federal transfer payments to Quebec, including a $700-million increase in equalization to resolve the fiscal imbalance.

The turning point in the relationship came the very next day, March 21, when Charest took the entire $700 million of fiscal imbalance money and allocated it to a tax cut in the last week of the provincial campaign.

It was a monumental error. In the dying days of a bad campaign, it only reminded voters of Charest's broken promises on tax cuts in his first term. And in Ottawa, Harper had to deal with the blowback from the rest of Canada, where people were infuriated that voters in Quebec were bring bribed with their money.

Harper was completely blind-sided. Neither he nor any member of his staff ever got a heads-up. While they had no choice but to defend Charest as being quite within his rights to spend the money however he saw fit, Harper was in a private fury.

And then when Charest was reduced to minority status last March 26, Harper suddenly had another horse in the provincial race - Mario Dumont and the ADQ. Winning 41 seats and finishing second in 45 more, Dumont left a footprint Harper would love to walk in. There's a natural affinity between the federal Conservatives and the ADQ - both are right-of-centre parties based outside Montreal.

Charest repaired some of the damage over the summer when he was strongly supportive of the mission in Afghanistan at a time when Quebec-based troops were rotating in to lead it. He gave Harper a much-needed firewall in public opinion.

But then the Harper and Charest governments fell out over a number of files, and the feds didn't appreciate the grandstanding of some of Charest's ministers.

And before the holidays, Harper spoke at a chamber of commerce in Rivière-du-Loup, where Dumont also was at the head table. You wouldn't think anything was out of the ordinary about a prime minister sharing a platform with a provincial opposition leader, especially in his own riding. But the Quebec Liberals had a very bad reaction to it, coming as it did at the end of a very good fall session in the legislature for Charest, and a very bad one for Dumont.

"What the hell is Harper up to?" asked a source close to Charest. For their part, the Harperites thought the Quebec Liberals badly over-reacted. "We flew in, spoke at lunch, and flew out," says one senior member of Harper's staff. "I mean, get over it."

Well, both sides should get over it, because they still need each other, at least in the short term.

Dumont might have been riding a momentum wave last summer, but it was broken by his bad performance in the fall. And other than momentum, there is very little he can deliver to Harper in the way of votes. The ADQ doesn't have much of a campaign organization on the ground.

The truth is there's only one strong federalist force in federal and provincial politics - and that's the Big Red Machine controlled by Charest. It's the only significant federalist ground game off the island of Montreal, a crucial battleground of 50 seats. Charest has always directed Quebec Liberals to work for the most competitive federalist party and right now in ROQ, the Rest of Quebec, that's the Conservatives. But if he's annoyed at Harper, he could put the machine in neutral. The Quebec Liberals also suspect the Conservatives of sharing their polling data with Dumont, which is nonsense. It is so closely held not even Quebec cabinet ministers see it.

Last Friday's first ministers' meeting did not go well between the PM and premier. Harper was irritated that Charest showed up half an hour late, and made aggressive interventions throughout the dinner. Charest was simmering that the provinces weren't consulted, just presented with, Harper's $1-billion rescue package for small manufacturing and forestry towns hit hard by the flight of the loonie.

Charest has a point. It's hard to make the case this is "open federalism."

But if the special relationship is over, it might be time for both Harper and Charest to consider a new alliance of convenience - at least convenient enough to get them both to their next elections.

 
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