Get ready for wheeling and dealing to avoid an election

Some Liberal MNAs seem reluctant to go to polls over tax-cut budget

Sortie de crise

Finance Minister Monique Jerome-Forget's budget was published in three formats: on paper, on CD-ROM and, for the first time this year, on a pocket-sized USB flash drive that plugs into a port on a computer.
And when the Liberal members of the National Assembly trooped out of their caucus meeting and into the House yesterday morning, they all had the little oblong drives hanging from ribbon-like lanyards around their necks.
It was meant to show unity and willingness to fight an early election on the budget, not yet one day old but already doomed by its rejection by the two opposition parties that hold a majority of the seats in the Assembly.

But for the Liberal MNAs said to have misgivings about the wisdom of risking their seats on the budget - not to mention the ability of an unpopular leader to sell it to the electorate - the lanyards holding the flash drives might have seemed like nooses.
Only in Quebec would fighting an election on a budget whose key provision is a $950-million personal income-tax cut be considered suicidal.
But most Quebec voters pay relatively little or no income tax to begin with. So rather than cutting taxes, they prefer that the government maintain or increase spending on services for them. Jerome-Forget's cut would mainly benefit the fewer than 15 per cent of taxpayers with earnings of at least $65,000 a year.
Yesterday in the Assembly, opposition leader Mario Dumont argued that despite the cut, the 75 per cent of families with incomes of $70,000 or less would end up losing money because of increases in charges levied by government agencies. To hear Dumont tell it, instead of a soak-the-rich budget, Jerome-Forget had presented one that would soak the poor.
The previous evening, the Parti Quebecois, which holds the balance of power in the Assembly, announced it would follow the lead of Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec and vote against the budget in its present form. The implication was that it might support the budget if it were changed.
(Yesterday, Assembly President Michel Bissonnet ruled that to do so, the present budget would have to be withdrawn and replaced by a new one - the third presented this year.)
The PQ's position is like a union's strike vote, and it left the next move up to the government. But after learning of the PQ's decision, Premier Jean Charest assured his caucus the Liberals could win a majority in an election on the budget.
And yesterday in the Assembly, he seemed to be already in campaign mode in an angry exchange with Dumont over his government's use of a windfall in federal equalization payments to cover most of the income-tax cut.
When Dumont referred to criticism of Charest for using the money of taxpayers in the rest of the country to cut Quebecers' taxes instead of maintaining services, Charest countered by accusing Dumont of "crawling before English Canada as if we need to apologize."
At times, the federalist premier's tone verged on anti-English. "You know," said Charest, "in the years when we were getting cut by the federal government, I didn't hear the people in Saskatchewan crying over Quebec's fate."
But while Charest reiterated his government's determination to cut taxes, he didn't mention the figure of $950 million. This raises the possibility of a compromise in which the government would reallocate some of the money now earmarked for the cut to enable one of the opposition parties to support a new budget without losing face.
Charest has sometimes responded to criticism about caving in to pressure by choosing precisely the wrong issue on which to take a stand, such as the privatization of part of the Mont Orford provincial park.
If the PQ's position is like a strike vote, the strike deadline is not until next Friday, when the budget is expected to come to a vote in the Assembly.

That leaves time for more posturing, but also for negotiation. And public opinion might force one of the parties to break the deadlock to avoid an election the public doesn't want or the party would lose.

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