In March's Quebec election, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government. Among their sins was a failure to meet their 2003 election promise to reduce taxes. Premier Jean Charest is not about to make the same mistake twice. This time he has made it clear he will stick with his commitment to voters to reduce personal taxes even if the price is another provincial election - one he may well lose. It is either a rare example of political principle or evidence of Mr. Charest's tin ear - or, perhaps, a dangerous game of chicken.
Since his minority government introduced its budget on Thursday, Mr. Charest has warned repeatedly that he will not back down on the tax-cut proposal. Quebec could use some tax relief. But the $950-million tax cut is a luxury he can afford not because his government has made some tough (and necessary) choices over public spending but because of increased transfer payments from a friendly government in Ottawa.
So far, Mr. Charest is sticking to his story. There have been hints that some budget accommodation might be made with the Parti Québécois, but not over the tax cuts. A more obvious ally for the Liberals is the Action Démocratique du Québec, which should have an interest in tax cuts but has been bound by statements made before the budget by leader Mario Dumont, who said his party would vote against the budget if it favoured tax cuts over debt repayment. Mr. Charest, meanwhile, claims he will not compromise over the tax cut: "There's no question of tinkering with that." Given that he leads a minority government, that the two opposition parties oppose the cuts (so far) and that a budget vote is a matter of confidence in the government, his resolve is difficult to understand.
The Premier has warned the opposition that the Liberals are prepared to put their tax-cut proposal to voters once again. "I can't wait for the rest of North America to watch this unusual and unique situation where actually [the opposition parties] go to the polls to fight to maintain high taxes." Except that polls show that in such an election, the Liberals would finish third. What the rest of North America could be watching is a ritual act of political self-extirpation.
It is possible that Mr. Charest knows something that the opposition, and political observers, do not. Perhaps Quebec voters would take pity on a government done in within two months. Perhaps they would be impressed by Mr. Charest's principled attempt to fulfill his campaign promise. Perhaps they would blame the others for the budget's defeat. But then again, perhaps not. When Joe Clark's Progressive Conservative government fell on a budget vote in 1979, Mr. Clark erroneously expected that his party would be able to use the snap election to catapult to a majority. The Liberals trounced him. The best option for Quebec is for Mr. Dumont to work out a face-saving compromise with Mr. Charest, although in the circumstances it is hard to imagine what that would look like.