Have-not Premier Buys Must-have Votes

Worth A Look, Equalization, Frontier Centre

The federal government’s 10 figure cheque hadn’t even greased his palm before Quebec Premier Jean Charest cashed it for campaign credit.

But by turning Quebec’s freshly minted equalization billions into election-eve tax-cut promises, Mr. Charest has reduced a federal cure for the “fiscal imbalance” to the sordid level of an emergency fix for public opinion tilting against his floundering Liberals.

Equalization is about creating a similar calibre of essential services spanning Canada’s rich and poor provinces, ensuring a Confederation where health, education and social safety nets meet a lowest common denominator. It is not a national subsidy so have-not premiers can buy must-have votes through crass electioneering.

Keep in mind that this most desperate of premiers governs a province that debt-finances Canada’s most unaffordable lifestyle. Yet Mr. Charest diverted the windfall given Quebec in this week’s budget to a tax cut worth $750 per average Quebec family, buying votes using Ontario, Alberta and B.C. currency.

The galling spectacle of Mr. Charest stripping $700-million for tax reduction from his $2.2 billion haul just 24 hours after receiving word of the federal handout may well bring back Quebec-bashing as a Canadian heritage sport.

Okay, Charest backers will argue, the Premier promised tax cuts four years ago and needed more money to deliver the goodies. And it’s true equalization payments can be spent at the whim of the provincial government.

But provinces sending more money to Ottawa than they receive in federal spending will not appreciate Canada’s productivity laggard using their redistributed wealth as a Hail Mary election play.

By making this move, Mr. Charest has added fuel to the fires of discontent in Atlantic Canada, where premiers believe they have been ripped off by a broken Stephen Harper promise on revamping the equalization calculation.

And the news will not sit well west of Saskatchewan, where residents already seethe with resentment against a Quebec they view as coddled with far more than its rightful share of federal transfers.

Of course, you won’t see this national angst reflected in Question Period exchanges between the federal parties. Any suggestion Quebec is acting with reckless fiscal imprudence and is addicted to federal largesse must not be uttered aloud lest the vote-rich province be displeased.

But even former premier Lucien Bouchard warned in 2005 that his beloved future nation needed to tackle its runaway debt, reboot education investments, increase consumption taxes and jump-start the productivity of its holiday-hooked masses.

There’s sad irony in the fact Mr. Charest founded a Council of the Federation so premiers could gripe and groan over being forced to deliver costly health and education services without sufficient federal revenue to do the job properly.

Only one thing has changed since Mr. Charest turned that defensible position into indefensible politicking — he’s losing an election he had in the bag just one month ago.

One can only hope Quebecers will reject the shallow crassness of Mr. Charest’s tax-cut promise, knowing their province has many more pressing problems to address.

Quebec runs a nation-leading debt of $122 billion, which drains a staggering $7-billion in interest payments from general revenue every year.

The government provides a distinct society of $7 daily daycare, tuition fees a third of the Canadian average, child care allowances that can hit $2,091 a year for the first kid and top-ups for registered education savings plans all wrapped in thick layers of heavily unionized job protection.

In short, Quebecers enjoy myriad family and social services denied to the taxpayers of other provinces who subsidize their beyond-their-means lifestyle.

In this act of drowning-man desperation, Mr. Charest gives a modern-day revival to the famed 1915 cartoon that showed a cow straddling a map of Canada, eating grain in Alberta and being milked in Quebec. Atlantic premiers would undoubtedly argue bovine-enhanced fertilizer is dropping on their provinces.

Quebec’s problems, nicely summed up in this two-year-old synopsis from Bouchard, is increasingly its epitaph:

“They work less than other North Americans; they retire earlier; they benefit from more generous social programs; both individually and collectively, their credit cards are maxed out. In a few short years, our dreams — or rather our children’s — will be brutally interrupted by a knock on the door when the bailiffs come calling.”

Premier Jean Charest obviously believes the bailiffs will never call as long as the rest of Canada is willing to bail Quebec out.

Until that stops — and soon would be nice — equalization can never be achieved between the taking by Quebec and the giving from the rest of Canada.