Tax cut? 'Yeah, right,' Quebecers say

Charest's pledge is being met with skepticism by some voters who remember his promises from the last election

Québec 2007 - Analyse

"Hey, friend. Do you like to eat potatoes? Mashed potatoes, French fried potatoes, potatoes with Cheez Whiz?"
So begins Willi Waller, one of the humourous animated videos on Quebec's Tetes a claques website, which is so wildly popular that anglophone schoolkids can recite lines from it.
(If you understand French, check it out at
Jean Charest refers often to Willi Waller, a parody of a television infomercial for a simple but ridiculously overpriced potato peeler featuring a franglais-speaking pitchman called Uncle Tom.
At one point, after boasting that the Willi Waller 2006 can peel a potato "not in a third of the time, not in a quarter of the time, but half the time," Uncle Tom says:
"You're saying, 'whoa, wait a minute, Uncle Tom. What you're telling me out of your mouth is impossible. Stop bullshitting me, Uncle Tom.'
"Well, I perfectly understand your skepticism."
And maybe Willi Waller fan Charest can understand the apparent skepticism of some Quebecers about his 11th-hour promise of a new, $700-million cut in personal income tax.
Presented by Charest as an announcement, the proposed tax cut is actually a campaign promise. And that's the word used to describe it, accurately, in most news reports.
That's because the cut, which Charest said would save middle-income families an average of $750 a year, would not come into effect until next year, and then only if the Liberals are re-elected.
Charest confirmed suspicions that the budget his government tabled the day before calling the election was only a temporary one, so that the government would not be accused during the campaign of concealing the state of the province's finances. The Feb. 20 budget survived for exactly one month.
The "announcement" was made, not in a budget speech to the National Assembly, but in a campaign speech to a business audience at a downtown Montreal hotel.
(Coincidentally, it was just across the street from another hotel where, in 1970, the outgoing government of the now-defunct Union Nationale party actually did present a "budget" in mid-campaign, having neglected to do so before calling the election.)
Charest's promise came a day after an actual budget, the federal one, made it possible by announcing the transfer to Quebec of enough money to cover the cost of the cut.
So even after the election, when it is customary for the government to discover unpleasant financial surprises that prevent it from keeping the promises on which it was elected, a re-elected Charest government should be able to afford to keep this one.
Even so, where promises of tax cuts are concerned, Charest doesn't have a lot of credibility left, having failed to keep his last election's promise to reduce personal income taxes by $1 billion a year for five years.
Charest argues that Quebec, which had the heaviest tax burden among the provinces when his government came to power, now has the fifth-lightest. What he neglects to mention is that this is partly because of tax increases in other provinces.
Both the main opposition parties say they would spend the $700 million from Ottawa otherwise, in effect conceding the tax-cut issue to the Liberals. And Charest's promise brought his well-dressed and well-heeled audience to its feet to applaud.
But business audiences are usually sympathetic to Charest anyway, and this one greeted him with a standing ovation even before its members heard about the tax cut they'll be getting, provided the party they back is re-elected. There was little danger here that Charest would be upbraided by a disgruntled union member, as happened recently when he made a rare visit to a shop floor.
And Quebec is a rare jurisdiction in which tax cuts are not a priority. In fact, most people prefer to keep taxes high to pay for more public services.
While everybody uses the services, most Quebec voters, under this province's "progressive" system, actually pay little or no personal income tax, and it's only a minority that can claim to be overtaxed.

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