Raymond Bachand has taken a hard line at the start of negotiations over what to do about Quebec's sales tax.
Pushed by federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to merge Quebec's tax into the federal one, Bachand has pushed back, via an aide who rejected out of hand a key part of Flaherty's proposal. But this flat refusal to let Ottawa collect a "harmonized" tax isn't good enough. Bachand and Premier Jean Charest owe it to us to explain their intransigence.
As a subject, harmonization can quickly glaze the eyes of even the most devoted fans of the federal-provincial tug-of-war. The core idea is that with one base of what's taxable and what's not, and one set of rules, the whole system would be simpler, and there are advantages - in passing through certain tax costs to consumers - for the business sector.
Ontario now joins all the Atlantic provinces, except Prince Edward Island, in harmonizing. On balance consumers pay more under harmonization, so Ottawa has softened the pain - for the government of Premier Dalton McGuinty, if not for his taxpayers - with a one-time $4.3 billion payment to Ontario.
(Gilles Duceppe said Ottawa is doing this for Ontario, but not Quebec, because the governing Conservatives are trying to win votes in Ontario. This is a particularly brain-dead argument: Are the Conservatives trying to lose votes in Quebec?)
In an article on The Gazette's opinion page on Wednesday, Flaherty argued that Quebec, too, should harmonize, reducing business taxes and compliance costs too, since Ottawa would administer the whole tax and send a cheque to Quebec.
Finding the idea of a one-time payment alluring, Charest and his finance ministers, until recently Monique Jérôme-Forget and now Bachand, have shown some interest. But the idea that Ottawa would collect the tax now looks like a deal-breaker. Bachand says, through an aide, that "It is important that we maintain our fiscal autonomy. That is at the heart of our preoccupations."
What's wrong with these people? The heart of their preoccupations should be economic efficiency, surel. The $130 million a year Quebec spends annually on collecting its sales tax is sheer redundancy since Ottawa has the same mechanism. Why is a supposedly federalist government obsessed with the folie de grandeur of separate tax collection, for sales tax and income tax alike? While other Canadians are filling out one income tax form this spring, Quebecers must do two.
Duceppe, replying to Flaherty's article in La Presse Thursday (in a text not offered to The Gazette) adopts the usual insulted tone, stopping barely short of declaring Flaherty's proposal to be a humiliation for Quebec. This is the sterile pap we expect from the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois, but it's dismaying that the Liberal government won't be more rational.
Here's an offer: We'll find space on our opinion page any time Bachand will deign to let our readers know why the heart of his preoccupations is filled with claptrap about autonomy, instead of the best interests of Quebec taxpayers.