Martin and Charest need health-care deal


September 10, 2004 Friday
By Jove. It looks like after 10 years of post-referendum hard-line, very tough love from Ottawa, Quebec is fast becoming a veritable object of affection for federal parties.
Conservative leader Stephen Harper wants to rebuild his party's Mulroney-era base in Quebec. He's even planning to hold the first post-election national convention next March right here in Montreal and has been quietly hiring francophone Quebecers as part of his entourage - something Paul Martin has failed to do.
Beside his strongly provincialist approach, Harper also is poised to come out of that convention armed with a new, more centrist, moderate platform deemed to be closer to mainstream opinion in Quebec.
Quebec is now so "in" that even Martin, although he's always denied the existence of a fiscal imbalance with provinces, appears ready to make some serious financial advances to Premier Jean Charest.
Sorry for being a bit skeptical, but could all these political kisses blown our way by Tories and Grits have to do with, say, getting more votes in Quebec in the next federal election - an election that could be held before the end of next year? In the words of Tina Turner: "What's love got to do with it?"
There is so much love in the air for Quebec in Ottawaland that Charest has even caught himself saying the A-word publicly: asymmetrical federalism - an expression long thought to be buried beside the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.
Martin and Charest, two men acting like leaders living on a suspended sentence from voters, need each other's help the most. Realpolitik has a way of turning longtime foes into circumstantial allies.
Charest, whose satisfaction rating in Quebec is right down there with that of the common cold, desperately needs more health-care money from Ottawa. Without at least minimal improvements to the system, his "health is my No. 1 priority" speech will not fly.
The credibility of his distinct approach to federalism, including the creation of the Council of the Federation, also will be toast if Ottawa doesn't show true flexibility and refrain from imposing conditions on how Quebec could spend this new money.
As for Martin, he needs Quebec votes so much the next time, it's almost pathetic. Not only is he vulnerable because of his minority government, Martin will have to compete with Harper's more provincialist approach and a Tory base that can go nowhere but up in Quebec. And nothing spells "provincial rights" like a nice fat cheque without many strings attached.
More important, Martin must offer something positive to voters as he enters the shark-filled waters of the Gomery Commission investigating the sponsorship scandal.
Who knows how ugly things will get for Martin and the Liberals along the way?
How many votes will melt away as the civil war between Martinites and Chretienites resurfaces throughout the hearings? Not to mention the effect on votes of the post- and even pre-referendum propaganda war to be dug up again. Here's a sign of things to come: Justice John Gomery ordered the federal government to produce documents on contracts going back as far as January 1994 with the Liberal-friendly firms that benefitted from enhancing Ottawa's visibility in Quebec.
In such a volatile context, the electorally fragile Charest and Martin must start to agree on how to get more health-care money for Quebec at next week's first-ministers meeting. Failure is not an option.
There has been a lot of speculation on the numbers. How many billions more will Quebec get? Will it amount to more than a drop in the bottomless health-care bucket? Will it come through increased equalization payments, direct payments or both? Whatever it is, for Martin and Charest, the money will have to be substantial because expectations have been raised.
Mind you, Charest has one advantage over Martin. He could possibly profit from the Parti Quebecois infighting that's certain to continue. Paradoxically, the premier can also count on the support of the Bloc on a number of issues. Gilles Duceppe will be much busier supporting Charest's position on Quebec and devising common strategies with other opposition parties than shoring up the PQ or talk up sovereignty.
While these leaders play their political survivalist games, the real problem for Quebecers is not being tackled, nor will it be. The problem is that Ottawa collects way more revenue than it needs to cover its constitutional responsibilities while Quebec is left wanting. In fact, the Conference Board has just predicted that in the next 10 years, Ottawa would garner surpluses of more than $166 billion.
Chances are Martin will be long gone by then, while Quebec will be continuing to travel to Ottawa to beg some more.

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