Quebec tax break could blow up in Harper's face

Québec 2007 - le facteur «Canada»

Ottawa – Nothing in politics is as unstable as the status quo. Yesterday's certain advantage is today's inescapable liability.

If the Prime Minister wasn't sensitive to that before, he is now that his budget is giving Quebecers a wildly generous tax gift. What seemed an obvious win-win for federal Conservatives and Quebec Liberals is now a potential lose-lose for Stephen Harper and Jean Charest.

At the centre of this lesson is something so broadly irksome that any opposition worthy of the name should be able to turn it into outrage and then votes. Reduce the issue to bumper-sticker simplicity and the contentious new tax equation sounds like this: Your pain is Quebec's gain.

If that's inflammatory, blame it on Harper's risky meddling in a provincial election and Jean Charest's desperation in trying to force campaign events to fit the script. Blame it, too, on the cool cynicism that turns a $2.3 billion federal equalization and transfer payment top-up into a gee-thanks $700 million break for Quebec taxpayers.

Anyone who follows the money – and that's now almost everyone – will slide over the complex details to reach the obvious conclusion that the Prime Minister and his odd provincial bedfellow agreed to dip into most taxpayers' pockets to buy a couple of elections.

The first test of how well that's working comes Monday when Quebec votes. But early evidence suggests the scheme isn't unfolding quite as planned.
In promising Quebecers a tax break, Charest painted a target on a federal budget that until then seemed unusually bulletproof. In a single statement the Quebec premier made Harper look like a dupe and added substance to complaints from other provinces that Conservatives have become big spenders primarily for partisan advantage.

It remains to be seen if that's enough to spare the country a spring election. But it's already taking the first blush off the budget and threatens to change Harper's image from shrewd strategist to calculating manipulator.
It's true that national leaders always take that risk when they dabble in provincial politics. As susceptible as voters are to bribes they often react badly when cash incentives carry smug assumptions about ballot-box behaviour.
While hardly risk-averse, the Prime Minister is rarely foolhardy. So until Charest found a tax windfall in the country's contribution to Quebec social services, Harper was on the safe side of the line. Now he's in an unfamiliar defensive position.

Along with being accused of abandoning Conservative principles for crass political purposes, Harper will find it that much more difficult to manufacture a credible reason for forcing a spring election.

The art of minority government is engineering defeat on the most favourable terms. Most often that involves the ruling party stuffing something unpalatable down opposition throats while looking like the victim.

Harper is halfway there. His foes will be forced to swallow themselves whole to accept what Conservatives will soon shove at them on law-and-order, anti-terrorism or even the environment.

But phase two is now more problematic. Thanks to Charest and federal gamesmanship, Harper will now have a tougher time finding a sympathetic audience if his government tries to make suicide look like murder.
There would be no tears in Newfoundland or Saskatchewan, and surprisingly few even in Alberta, where the growing distance between Conservatives and their Reform roots is making headlines. And in Ontario, pleasure over a bigger federal cheque is fading to pain over the damage incentives for foreign hybrids and penalties for domestic gas-guzzlers may inflict on an already struggling auto sector.

Harper and Charest have a defence for what they hatched during months of closed meetings; after all, equalization is about the relationship between services and taxes. The problem is that the explanation is complex and this federal government relies on coffee-shop wisdom to insulate its policies from unwanted scrutiny.

Charest's decision to turn federal dollars into a tax bonanza for his voters blows holes in that protection.

No one needs an explanation for what's happening or why and outside Quebec only the most generous will see it as anything more than fleecing Paul to pay Pierre.

That's not something a federal Liberal leader from Quebec can safely attack. But it reinforces stereotypes and toys with easily inflamed emotions prime ministers are duty bound to debunk and douse in the interests of national tranquility.

In failing to do either, in pursuing a majority at any cost, Harper is contributing to the instability of an always-shaky status quo.

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