Clouds forecast for Charest, Dion

Nation issue among snags foreseen. Liberal branding could hurt premier: analysts

S. Dion, chef du PLC

par IRWIN BLOCK and ROBERTO ROCHA, The Gazette; PC contributed to this report
They're both Liberals, but Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Stephane Dion are not on the same page when it comes to the so-called fiscal imbalance and Quebec's status as a nation, observers noted yesterday.
That could lead to uneasy relations between the Quebec and federal Liberal parties, and force Dion to alter his stance if he wishes to gain ground in his home province, they suggested.
Yesterday, Charest had no hesitation in offering his congratulations to Dion on his election Saturday as federal Liberal leader.
"His election came as a surprise, but it followed other recent surprises," Charest said at a news conference on funding for nano-technology.
He was referring to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's motion to recognize the Quebecois as a nation within Canada.
Charest sidestepped the question of whether Dion, father of the federal Clarity Act, will have to do battle with Quebec nationalists who dislike him for his strong federalist views.
But if he wants to form a government, "Mr. Dion will have to gain the confidence of Canadians, and particularly the confidence of Quebecers," Charest said.
Charest did not deal directly with Dion's refusal to recognize Quebec's claim to more taxation power. "He (Dion) has spoken about the equalization program and said it's a constitutional responsibility. He wants to reinforce equalization. We agree on that."
The federal Liberal Party convention last week adopted a position recognizing the existence of a fiscal imbalance, involving insufficient resources for Quebec to finance its responsibilities while Ottawa enjoys surpluses.
But Dion does not agree, and the issue could create friction, observers said.
"It might be time for Mr. Dion to take a second look at his position and perhaps bring it closer to Mr. Charest's," said political scientist Eric Montpetit of the Universite de Montreal, whose appointment followed Dion's move from academics to politics.
But since Dion is known for his coherence, Montpetit said he'd be surprised if Dion suddenly conceded that fiscal imbalance does exist. "Therefore, it is quite likely that Charest will continue to prefer Stephen Harper to a Liberal government," Montpetit concluded.
He noted Charest has said that increasing equalization payments is not enough, that Quebec wants a transfer of tax points.
The two leaders are also far apart on the meaning of recognizing the Quebecois as a nation.
"Stephane Dion clearly supported it reluctantly," Montpetit noted.
Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said Charest is closer to Harper's centre-right bent than Dion, who is more centre-left. Charest and Harper also seem to be closer on the notion of open federalism, which Dion does not share.
Though the two Liberal parties are distinct, if Quebecers do not warm up to Dion this could ricochet on Charest because "he's sharing the same brand."
Jean-Hermann Guay of the Universite de Sherbrooke said softening by Dion of one or more of his more rigid positions would be well received.
"Expectations of flexibility are so low when it comes to Mr. Dion that one or two gestures would be enough to get people to say, 'Well, he's not so bad after all.' "
This could result in political gains for the federal Liberals in Quebec, particularly by appealing to soft nationalists. Not siding with Quebec on some issues could hurt the federal Liberals' chances in the next election.
"If Mr. Charest is unhappy with Mr. Dion, it will accentuate his difficult position in Quebec," Guay warned.
In Quebec City yesterday, Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair said he was astonished by Charest's "timid reaction" to Dion's election.
"Mr. Charest's main battle is the fiscal imbalance, and he won't find an ally in Mr. Dion," he said, adding he sees Dion as a first-class adversary.

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