Saving Private Charest

Our premier had to go to Harper asking to be propped up by Ottawa's budget generosity

Budget Flaherty

According to a famous story, Irish writer George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) once asked the lady seated beside him at a dinner party whether she would sleep with him for a million pounds.
"Of course," the lady replied. "Well, then," the writer continued, "how about one pound?" "Of course not," the lady exclaimed indignantly. "What do you think I am?"
"We've already established what you are, Madam," Shaw said. "Now we're just haggling over the price."
The difference between Quebec and Shaw's dining companion is that while this province is open to offers from Canada to buy its affection - indeed, it expects and demands them - the price is never satisfactory. What Quebec is might have been established by our politicians, but at least it is not cheap.
The federal Liberals are still blamed for insulting Quebecers by trying to buy our loyalty to Canada. But the sponsorship program involved mere millions. More recently, many of the same people have been demanding billions for Quebec to settle the so-called fiscal imbalance. I guess we're just haggling over the price.
And one hopes our country is not governed by people so naive as to have expected that their budget yesterday would, as Stephen Harper promised, finally settle the imbalance, as far as Quebec is concerned.
The most gratitude they could have expected from this province for the $2.1-billion boost in equalization and transfer payments was a partly encouraging and partly grudging, "Well, it's a step in the right direction." This is Quebec being wildly ecstatic at an offer from the rest of Canada.
Indeed, even while Jean Charest has been boasting in advance of his success in getting the Harper government to keep its election promise, he's also been cautioning he did not expect yesterday's budget to settle it once and for all. In other words, it is only a step in the right direction, to be followed by yet more billions.
Federal politicians, with the notable exception of Stephane Dion, apparently feel they have no choice but to go along. But in other circles in English Canada, there is growing irritation at Quebec for spending lavishly and then congratulating itself for being more generous than the more industrious and thrifty provinces it expects to pay for its extravagance. It's easy to be generous on somebody else's credit card.
Again on the weekend, the Globe and Mail's influential national columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, described the imbalance as "mythology," and wrote Quebec's financial problem "is one of its own making," because it lacks the will to set its own house in order.
Similarly, though in harsher terms, the cover of the March 19 edition of Maclean's called Quebec "le deadbeat" and "Canada's economic basket case." The article inside, based on criticisms of the "Quebec model" by Lucien Bouchard's "lucids," implied Quebecers are lazy, preferring sleep to work.
Upon reading such things, even a Quebec federalist can find a certain appeal in Andre Boisclair's argument a sovereign Quebec, in addition to being "free," would have no choice but to become responsible as well.
Charest shows no embarrassment at helping to pimp out his - and our - province, and at having become dependent, politically as well as financially, on the generosity of outsiders.
His calls for help to Ottawa are a tacit admission he has failed doubly, both in his tentative efforts to reduce the cost of government in Quebec and to out-campaign his opponents, as he confidently expected when he called the election.
Now he has become another government leader with shaky support among his own people who must be propped up by Harper. He is a pudgy Hamid Karzai in a badly fitting suit instead of the black lambskin hat.
Having spent nine years trying to live down having come into Quebec politics as Ottawa's boy, Charest is Ottawa's boy once again. Worse, now he's Harper's boy, and Harper is not popular in Quebec.
And Quebecers usually aren't impressed by announcements of new money from Ottawa. They might look at yesterday's budget and say, as they have in the past: "That's nice. What else you got?"

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