The Conservatives are down and out in Quebec – and know it

Ignatieff - le PLC et le Québec

Something quiet but profound has altered the Harper government's political strategy: Quebec doesn't cut it any more.
From day one of the first Harper government, Quebec was the epicentre of Conservative dreams, plans and spending. Quebec had all those seats beckoning Conservative victories. A French kiss, one author described the affair. Some kiss, some affair.
Billion of dollars were transferred from Ottawa to Quebec (and some other provinces) to resolve the invented issue of the “fiscal imbalance.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the spot decision to recognize the Québécois as a “nation” within a united Canada. There were speeches and programs and blandishments and emotive words such as “autonomy” used by Mr. Harper. All to woo Quebec.
As in all unnatural relationships, what began in hope degenerated into misunderstandings, then feuds. Who threw the first stone doesn't matter; stones were thrown on all sides.
Mr. Harper and his inexperienced crowd thought that, in the Action Démocratique du Québec, they saw Quebec francophones with similar ideas. So they played footsie with this ADQ crowd, even to the point of Mr. Harper's travelling to Rimouski to appear on a platform with the slippery Mario Dumont. The dalliance infuriated Quebec Liberals, whose boss, Premier Jean Charest, thought Mr. Harper should be playing footsie only with him.
After much caterwauling and nattering from Quebec about the “fiscal imbalance,” Mr. Harper had duly handed over billions of additional dollars for social programs – only to find that a campaigning Mr. Charest had taken the first tranche of the money and announced tax cuts to help his re-election bid. At which point, Mr. Harper hit the roof.
Further betrayals arrived. Mr. Charest, having pocketed the billions for the “fiscal imbalance,” sent his Finance Minister to announce at the beginning of the federal campaign that, no, Quebec's “demands” (Quebec is always demanding) had not been met.
With every Conservative candidate campaigning on having settled the “fiscal imbalance,” it was quite a blow to their credibility to hear Mr. Charest declare the matter unfinished. Of course, Mr. Charest had many other grievances and gripes that needed attention. So much for giving Mr. Harper a break in Quebec.
Then came the relatively minor squalls over culture and juvenile sentencing that blew up in the campaign. They betrayed the Harperites' lack of touch when dealing with Quebec sensitivities, as well as Quebeckers' preference for de facto sovereignty-association that they manifest by refusing to participate in governing Canada while demanding more from it through the Bloc Québécois. Then came Mr. Harper's attack on “separatists” during the coalition farce last December.
The Conservatives are now down and out in Quebec, and they appear to know it. The Liberals, through no serious efforts of their own, are on the rise. Conservatives don't wake up trying to figure out how to placate and impress Quebec, that game having failed. Instead, they seem to have understood that any majority will come with improvement in Ontario and British Columbia.
A more solicitous attitude has been shown by the Harper government toward Ontario, where the recession has hit harder than any other part of Canada.
Ontario's unemployment rate is now higher than Quebec's. Ontario's manufacturing sector, especially its automotive heart, is staggering. Ontario is hollowing out; its fiscal position is eroding sharply (more sharply than Quebec's); tomorrow's budget will spill red ink.
And yet, here's the dilemma: Despite a staggering economy, growing unemployment and a fiscal nightmare, Ontario taxpayers, via Ottawa, are still going to ship billions of dollars to Manitoba, the four Atlantic provinces and Quebec.
Last week's Quebec budget had $8-billion in equalization payments, amounting to 12 per cent of total revenues. Notwithstanding this bonanza, and the fact that payments had almost doubled, the budget contained a chapter complaining about how unfair equalization was to Quebec. Call it Gallic gall.
New Brunswick's equalization payments, announced in a budget a week ago, amounted to 18 per cent of total revenues. No whining there, mercifully.
Part of Quebec's complaint was the Harper government's cap on equalization's growth, a change that will help Ontario, the paymaster that can't afford the bill any more but can't get up from the table without paying it.

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