As Stephen Harper exited the press room at the end of last week’s First Ministers meeting, he passed close to Quebec Premier Jean Charest. Neither acknowledged the other, and a moment later Charest was at the podium, bluntly conveying his displeasure with the prime minister. “Quebec is profoundly disappointed,” he said.
Two years ago, delivering the federal budget for 2007, Jim Flaherty declared that “the long, tiring, unproductive era of bickering between the provincial and federal governments” was over. But now, amid financial chaos, there is a new disagreement over equalization, and it adds a prominent name to the prime minister’s list of hectoring opponents.
They were once thought to be allies, but the relationship between Harper and Charest has gone wobbly. During the federal election, Charest openly criticized Harper’s cuts to arts funding. Harper’s Conservatives subsequently failed to make gains in Quebec and two months later, Charest managed to pull off something that has long eluded the prime minister: a majority government. Charest is now apparently eager to quibble publicly over a federal change to the equalization formula. The Conservatives say Charest’s government has flip-flopped, and used to support the new formula. Charest accuses the Conservatives of “misrepresenting the facts.”
With the poor election showing of the ADQ (the Quebecois nationalist party with ties to Harper’s Conservatives), and pressure on Flaherty to craft a budget that satisfies all constituencies, Charest enjoys a certain advantage. But it’s one that, given the economic anxiety dominating the agenda, he must exploit carefully. “It’s going to make for a very grumpy electorate if they see Canada’s leaders playing politics,” says pollster Nik Nanos. “If he’s seen to be taking advantage of his comparative strength then that won’t even play well in the province of Quebec.”