Harper unlikely to help Charest, ex-aide says

Struggling to keep his political life afloat, Jean Charest shouldn't expect a lifeline from Stephen Harper, says an ex-strategist for the prime minister.

PM likely looking for 'revenge' for Quebec Liberal leader's 2007 tax-cut betrayal

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Quebec Premier Jean Charest, right, in Ottawa, on Jan. 16, 2009. Struggling to keep his political life afloat, Jean Charest shouldn't expect a lifeline from Stephen Harper, says an ex-strategist for the prime minister. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Struggling to keep his political life afloat, Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest shouldn't expect a lifeline from Stephen Harper, says an ex-strategist for the prime minister.

Tom Flanagan believes Harper is still smarting from the last time he reached out to help the incumbent premier.

In a controversial decision, during the dying days of Quebec's tight election campaign in 2007, Harper ramped up federal transfers that netted the province $2.3 billion.

Charest quickly turned the cash into $700 million of income-tax cuts, helping him pump enough life into his wilting campaign to squeak out a new, minority mandate.

The move surprised Ottawa, as it undercut the longstanding argument for larger transfers: namely, that the provinces couldn't afford services without extra cash. Meanwhile, other angry premiers felt short-changed and unloaded on Harper, accusing him of buying votes in Quebec.

What did Harper earn in return for helping Charest's Liberals in 2007? A "kick in the teeth," according to Flanagan.

Despite Harper's headaches, Flanagan says Charest did nothing to repay the favour. Instead, he points to how the premier has repeatedly attacked federal Conservative policies on issues such as crime and the environment.

The most frustrating example, Flanagan suggests, came when Charest intervened during the 2008 federal election to criticize Ottawa's cuts to culture programs. While the amount at stake was relatively minor, at $45 million in cutbacks, the move was unpopular in Quebec and Charest joined the list of Tory critics.

Harper's Tories swiftly lost ground in Quebec and now hold just five seats in a province where Harper remains deeply unpopular.

PQ win could be good for Tories

Flanagan doesn't think Harper would buy the argument that Charest had to be critical during the federal campaign as a way to maintain his credibility with Quebec's soft nationalists.

"There's a time and place for that kind of thing — and coming out in the middle of the 2008 campaign was not the time," Flanagan said in an interview.

"I would be looking for revenge for that one."

Charest might not even be the prime minister's preferred choice in this election, Flanagan says. For that distinction, he could face competition from Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault.

As for the Parti Québécois, which is considered the front-runner, Flanagan suggests there is even a potential silver lining if the pro-independence party wins.

The PQ is pushing for a transfer of powers and in some cases, such as Employment Insurance, Flanagan says the party's demands would be worth discussing because they might actually make the country work better.

"Well, my God, if they want it by all means let's unload it — it's been a money-loser for Canada, forever," he said about EI, noting that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to make it happen.

"Something like that I think is worth talking about.... So, I don't know that you should let opposition to separatism blind you to the merits of what a PQ government will ask for."

PMO mum

Dogged by widespread corruption allegations after nine years in power, Charest is facing tough competition from the PQ and a rising new party, Legault's Coalition. The premier is now considered a longshot to win re-election on Sept. 4.

Flanagan, who served as Harper's chief of staff until 2004, expects the prime minister to let nature run its course this time around.

A former Quebec Tory MP, who is running against Charest's Liberals in the provincial election, recalled how the premier lost lots of credibility among Conservatives when he turned that 2007 "gift" into tax cuts.

Luc Harvey, who recently relaunched the long-dormant Conservative Party of Quebec, said Charest's move put Quebec Tory MPs in a tough spot. He said they had the difficult task of explaining the premier's decision to use the cash for tax cuts after Charest had told Ottawa he needed the funds for things like health care.

"Mr. Charest did not keep his word on where this money would be spent," said Harvey, whose small party is not affiliated with the federal Tories. "It was a good short-term strategy, but not necessarily for the long term."

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on the subject, but a spokesman downplayed how plugged in Flanagan still is.

"He hasn't been around for years, basically since forming government," Andrew MacDougall wrote of Flanagan in an email.