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No surprise here: Harper remains fiscally off balance with Quebec

 

JEFFREY SIMPSON

September 24, 2008 at 11:00 PM EDT

 

Right there, in bold type on page 144 of the 2007 budget, the Harper government declared: "Fiscal Balance Has Been Restored."

 

Everywhere Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes in Quebec - the issue being of interest only in that province - he affirms that "we solved the problem of the fiscal imbalance." His Quebec ministers repeat the mantra; his candidates hammer home the message. The inference: Vote for us because we handed over all that money to Quebec (and the other provinces), just as we promised in the 2006 campaign. Case closed.

 

Except that, as anyone with the slightest sense of Quebec could have predicted, the appetite there only grows with the eating.

 

"The fiscal imbalance, according to us, is not yet solved," proclaims Quebec Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget. Things are much better, she acknowledges. But, "is it finished?" she asks. "No."

 

Quebec Premier Jean Charest also insists more money is needed to "solve" the problem. And, by the way, how about handing over all money and federal jurisdiction over "culture and communications," so that Quebec can achieve "cultural sovereignty"? And, while you're at it, Mr. Harper, hurry up with that promise to eliminate Ottawa's power to spend any money in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

 

Mr. Charest has learned the ways of a Quebec premier. Always demand. Never be satisfied. Keep the heat on. Position yourself as the "defender" of Quebec's interests. Insist on more money and power from Ottawa.

 

Mr. Harper ought to have seen this coming. No federal prime minister can ever out-national the nationalists, and none can ever satisfy any premier, at least not for long. As a result, he and Mr. Charest are no longer political allies, because it does not suit Mr. Charest to be other than a demandeur.

 

Instead, the Action Démocratique has become the Conservatives' closest political ally in Quebec, especially in the rural and small-town ridings the Conservatives target.

 

This is the crowd that whipped up alarm over immigration. This is the party that wants a separate constitution for Quebec, talks always of "autonomy" for Quebec, wants Quebec citizenship, demands a massive transfer of power (and money, of course) from Ottawa to Quebec, and sees Canada as a very loose association of two states. Mr. Harper has never repudiated any of these demands/statements from his erstwhile allies.

 

Mr. Harper, as is his wont, plays with slippery language in Quebec, often using the word "autonomy." Of course, he reminds everyone that he got passed the resolution describing the Québécois as a "nation" within Canada. And he brags about having "solved" the "fiscal imbalance." These ADQ/Conservative voters are exactly those for whom artists whining about cuts to their subsidies are figures of scorn. The brouhaha about Mr. Harper's $46-million in cuts to the arts goes right over their heads, or even fires them up more to support the Conservatives.

 

Mr. Harper says his government has increased cultural spending by 8 per cent. Where he gets that number from is unknown.

 

He did increase the Canada Council's budget over two years by $50-million, and he put $60-million into "local arts and festivals" in the 2007 budget. But the biggest increase this year was for the Francophone Summit in Quebec City, which will happen just after the election - $38-million in 2008 and $13-million in 2007. Is that culture?

 

The $46-million cut is a drop in the bucket of the tens of billions transferred to Quebec and the other provinces to "solve" the fiscal imbalance. The attention being paid to it represents a classic example of the urgent but minor driving out the huge and important.

The whole fiscal imbalance was an invention that became a mythology in Quebec: Big, bad, fat Ottawa was rolling in dough, while the poor, beleaguered provinces had too little.

 

A commission, established under the separatist government, produced a sum it claimed would resolve the problem. But even after the Paul Martin government transferred a larger sum than the commission had demanded, the mythology held.

 

Still more was required to solve the "problem," claimed Quebec and those provinces that clung to Quebec's coattails. Mr. Harper, fishing for votes in Quebec and desirous of slimming the federal government anyway, obliged with a cool $40-billion in transfers.

 

"We have solved the fiscal imbalance," he proclaimed.

 

Nice try.

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