Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



Here's some beef

Jean Charest has for some time been dogged by the accusation that he's all curls and no cattle. Judged against Jean Chretien, who no one confuses with John Kenneth Galbraith, and relieved of posing a realistic threat of forming a federal government, Charest, the Tory leader, was cut some slack in the economic policy department.

Those carefree days are over now and the squeeze has been on Charest to deliver some policy beef to back up the charisma ever since he snatched up the Liberal leadership fumble from Daniel Johnson. That's just what he did last week in his first major policy pronouncement. And he demonstrated - surprise, surprise - that he's a true-blue conservative cut from the same tax cut and small government cloth as Mike Harris and Ralph Klein.

Charest's economic vision came quickly on the heels of the new licks Premier Lucien Bouchard has been trying out on the pre-campaign trail. Among Bouchard's claims is that the Quebec economy is the healthiest its been in 10 years and that the PQ's job record in the last four years has been nothing short of phenomenal. The premier actually said that whereas the Parizeau-Bouchard regime has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, the Liberals in the nine years previous produced a net job gain of zero.

We mention this only to contrast with the landscape of economic desolation painted by Charest a few days later, much of which he blames on the sovereignist agenda driving Quebec politics since 1976. Had Quebec kept pace with the growth of the rest of the country and not been hobbled by political uncertainty, Charest says, the province's economic output would have been 20 percent higher.

This translates into a $34 billion price tag, $18,500 per family, according to the Liberal chief. On top of the cost of uncertainty, Charest piles the PQ government's "antiquated" interventionist policies, the high cost of government, and the steepest income tax load in North America.

These factors, he says, plus a range of other fiscal and regulatory impediments, has made enticing investment to Quebec, "like attracting flies with vinegar."

I'm not sure how investors like to be compared to flies, but Charest did let it be known what bait he prefers to vinegar: tax cuts. Various tallies, gleaned from references in his economic manifesto, put the magnitude of the cuts in the range of $3.1.

The most direct hit would be the government's so-called Super SGF (Societe Generale de Financement), which is budgeted at $2 billion a year for five years. Charest would take that money, much of it lost on bad investments, according to some reports, and return it in the form of a tax cut for individuals and businesses.

He would also remove the tax on capital for small and medium business, which, according to Liberal numbers, is double that of Ontario.

This would amount to another billion dollars returned to this job-creation engine of the economy. Charest promises, as well, to reduce labor code rigidity and slash the paper burden on business. Being an experienced politician, Charest didn't volunteer too many specific targets in his speech, what he later described as presenting a completely different philosophy from the tack taken by Parizeau, Bouchard and Economic Minister Bernard Landry.

Of course, the biggest plank in Charest platform, its foundation in fact, is the positive economic spin-off he promises will result from the rejection of another PQ government promising another referendum. The sense from his rather sober approach delivering a serious economic speech before a mostly non-partisan business crowd, is that he'll slip on the jeans during the campaign and start swinging that plank with a vengeance.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he reports for Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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