It's not often "dog bites man" makes front page, above the fold, but there it was in yesterday's La Presse:
"Boisclair accuse Charest de faire du chantage."
An election campaign, with one leader accusing the other of "blackmail."
When has it ever been otherwise?
The nub of this shocking revelation lies in an early campaign stop at which Liberal Leader Jean Charest informed his cheering supporters that a vote for André Boisclair's Parti Québécois, and subsequent separation, would put a quick end to federal transfer payments to Quebec.
"Forget it," Charest said. "It's delirium."
Any election in Canada can become confusing, but any election that involves the province of Quebec can, at times, be downright baffling.
For starters, Charest, a former Progressive Conservative federally, represents the Liberal Party provincially. A vote for the provincial Liberals, he says, will stand Quebeckers in good stead with the federal Conservatives, who currently hold power in Ottawa.
That's the simple part.
The transfer payments Charest says could be held back or taken away involve money collected by Ottawa. The federal government collects far more money than it should or that it needs to collect. It gathers this money from taxpayers, and loudly each quarter - and very loudly each year-end - announces a "surplus" of several billions of dollars. This "surplus" is then treated as if the government has magically, through adept management and wise decisions, managed to turn a "profit," thereby endearing the government in power to voters in the next election.
The idea being that "They must know what they're doing."
Much of this "profit" is then doled out, through various schemes, to the provinces, allowing the provincial governments in power to either (a) act like they have squeezed blood out of stone or (b) hold the stingy federal government up as a convenient villain during times of provincial election needs.
Never is it stated that the money involved belonged originally, and still does, to the Canadian taxpayer and is merely being returned to the rightful owners without the police and courts having to get involved.
The whole thing is called "equalization." When it began, in 1962, the idea was to use the wealth of the entire country to ensure a certain standard of service for Canadians everywhere. It was then considered the very definition of "fairness." The Canadian way.
Now, of course, it has come to mean "unfairness." Either the feds take too much, or they return too little - take your pick.
In Alberta, for example, it was revealed this weekend that the provincial surplus will hit $6.5-billion in the fiscal third quarter, a billion dollars more than predicted, and the fight there, should a provincial election come along, will be to keep more, not get more.
That is how, today, "equalization" has come to mean, among the premiers, that they are getting equally screwed.
This may be preposterous, but this, too, is Canada.
All this, of course, could have been avoided had the federal government not decided to go after taxes in the first place - but since Monday is the 87th anniversary of Ottawa imposing a 1-per-cent sales tax, it is safe to presume, at this stage, that taxes are here to stay.
Jean Charest is being accused of "blackmail" simply because he has dared say that if Quebec were to go its own way, it would do so on its own.
But there is nothing surprising about that. Pick an election theme - free trade, wage-and-price controls, conscription - and somewhere along the way there will be cries of "blackmail."
No one is quite sure where this Canadian tradition began, but Ray Argyle's book on Canadian elections, Turning Points, says that Sir John A. Macdonald pulled off his amazing comeback from scandal in 1878 by scaring the bejesus out of voters should they happen to return the Liberals to power.
A Liberal victory, Sir John A. thundered at a rally picnic in Toronto's Victoria Park, means free trade . . . means continentalists running the show . . . means, ultimately, annexation by the United States . . . means, obviously, an end to Canada less than a dozen years after its difficult and courageous birth.
But put me back in office, the first prime minister shouted, and his Conservative hounds would hunt down "the Grit rat. They shall catch the Grit rat, and we shall send his skin to Paris to make gloves of!"
Just imagine if they had television advertising in those days. . . .
The Charest-Boisclair tiff is merely the first blow in what will turn into a running battle over equalization in every election that is called, provincial or federal. The difference between this issue and the environment is simple: Everyone understands climate change; no one understands equalization apart from the fact it makes for good shouting material.
The oddity here is that if Jean Charest were to slip up before March 26, lose what as of yesterday seemed a comfortable lead in the polls, and if André Boisclair were to lead his Parti Québécois back to provincial power, his strategy would be exactly what he has accused Charest of trying.