That’s what friends are for

86004924_3ca8da99dc_oRemember when Charest and Harper were all buddy-buddy just before the 2007 Quebec election? How, just a few days before the vote, Ottawa cracked open its chequebook and sent $2.3-billion to the perpetually cash-strapped province, all under the guise of settling the fiscal imbalance? It was as transparent a ploy as anything the Conservatives had done in their first year in office. The message: vote Charest and Quebec’s squeaky wheels are going to see a whole lot of grease.

Fast-forward to this (yet-to-be-announced) election campaign. Once the have-most of the haves, Ontario is now queuing up with the rest of the provinces (except British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland) at the federal welfare office. But it’s taking up so much room that Ottawa is re-jigging the equalization program guidelines to cap how much it has to spend keeping the provinces afloat. All of it means one thing for Quebec: less federal money to play with.

Over at the Globe, Norman Spector suggests this may be Harper’s way of putting Charest in his place. On the surface, capping the growth of equalization payments may have looked like one of Ottawa’s patented potshots at Ontario. But, according to Spector, what we’re actually seeing is “some not-so-subtle payback for the role Jean Charest played in thwarting the Conservatives’ hope for a majority government on October 14th.”

If that is indeed Harper’s plan, there appears to be little downside, other than possibly reviving the moribund argument provinces are getting shortchanged. And even if that is the impression it leaves, the argument loses a lot of its steam if–make that ‘when’–Ottawa starts running deficits. The upside, on the other hand, can be considerable: the feds send a clear message they’re in no mood to entertain Quebec City’s demands and Harper regains his credibility as a federalist with teeth. I’m not convinced Spector’s analysis is correct; the Conservatives might just want to cap costs in the face of a recession. But if he is right, then Charest will need that majority he’s pining for because he’s pretty much on his own from now on.