Charest and Harper will show true colours on economy

Can the two conservatives do what's necessary to intervene?

Le Québec et la crise

For the Charest and Harper governments, the moment of truth is fast approaching. The next weeks will show to what extent the economy is truly their ultimate priority.
What they announce will also tell to what extent they believe in serious state intervention in times of uncertainty. And whether they'll toss aside the zero-deficit dogma and invest to stimulate job creation and strengthen the social safety net for the most vulnerable.
For neo-con ideologue Stephen Harper, the challenge will be harder. Although he's an economist by training, he failed to see the looming crisis during last fall's federal election campaign and even ridiculed Stéphane Dion for presenting a plan of action that included a special federal-provincial meeting.
Well, the crisis is here. Having succeeded in getting the governor-general to shut down Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote, Harper has now called just such a federal-provincial meeting for Jan. 16 and he promises a plan of action with a budget to be tabled on Jan. 27.
Harper's problem is that his own ideology is about to come back to hit him like a boomerang. Looking to reduce the government's role, he has shrunk the amount of money in federal coffers since he took power in 2006, announcing costly cuts in income taxes and doing away with $12 billion a year in revenue by cutting two GST points.
Harper will have to decide whether to forgo his emphasis on the ineffective neo-con prescription of cutting taxes, now decried even by the World Monetary Fund. Or whether he will hold his nose and run a hefty deficit to invest some serious money in the economy.
But from the looks of those he picked as his group of 11 economic advisers - most of whom are powerful right-leaning business leaders such as Paul Desmarais Jr. - it will be a mighty surprise if he does take the interventionist route.
As for Jean Charest, who held an election to get a stronger mandate to manage the economy, the order might also prove to be a tall one. As a classic conservative, although much more pragmatic than Harper, Charest will show his colours with a new economic statement to be tabled at the special three-day mini-session of the National Assembly Jan. 13-15.
But we learned yesterday that both his finance minister and economic-development minister were absent from Wednesday's cabinet meeting held in good part to prepare for the special session on the economy. Bemused Parti Québécois health critic Bernard Drainville said "the absence of the government's two lead tenors on the economy shows a lack of seriousness."
Still, what matters for Charest is that with his slim majority of 66 seats out of 125, a buoyant PQ, a decimated Action démocratique and the new, popular, left-wing Québec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir, he'll be facing a House much more geared to interventionist policies than when the right-wing ADQ formed the official opposition.
But the premier also knows that three days is an awfully short time to agree on what to do on the economy while also taking care of the "business of the House," such as electing a new speaker.
Which mean that if Charest fails to move on the economy quickly with well-targeted, concrete measures, the whole issue could be shoved back until after the federal budget, a major player in this game, as well as after the reconvening of the National Assembly in mid-march.
If that's the case, Quebecers might wonder why the premier didn't simply act on it as early as last November instead of holding an early election asking, to use Charest's own words, for his hands to be the only ones on the rudder to better weather this economic storm.
But seeing how Bourassa-like he has become in so many ways, Charest could also surprise us by now becoming more interventionist.
We'll know soon enough.

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