Bloc: Give Quebec $5 billion or else

QUEBEC — The Bloc Quebecois put up a big price tag — $5 billion — as the cost of its support for the upcoming federal budget

QUEBEC — The Bloc Quebecois put up a big price tag — $5 billion — as the cost of its support for the upcoming federal budget. Its request prompted an immediate slapdown from the government Wednesday and fuelled the chances of an imminent election.

It said Quebec has gotten a raw deal compared to other provinces in a multitude of areas, from regional development and tax harmonization to 1990s disaster relief. It wants some of that addressed in the upcoming budget.

The reaction from the federal government was scathing: a senior Conservative cabinet minister likened the opposition party to “hypocrites” playing with “Monopoly money.”

Wednesday’s events helped confirm the prevailing wisdom in Ottawa that, if an imminent election is to be avoided, it will depend on the NDP supporting the Tories’ budget.

That’s because the Liberals have already dismissed major elements of the government’s long-term spending and fiscal platforms — and the odds of the Bloc’s demands being met appear nil.

The Bloc lists a variety of areas where other provinces have received breaks not offered to Quebec: a multibillion-dollar sales tax harmonization deal with Ontario and B.C.; disaster relief funding for Manitoba’s Red River flood in 1997 but none for Quebec’s ice storm a year later; huge tax breaks for Alberta’s oil sector and billions for Ontario’s struggling auto industry but little for the forestry industry.

The party also includes, on its list of gripes, provincial transfers that are proportionally lower than they were in 1994.

And, while the national equalization program does send $8 billion to Quebec from other provinces every single year, the Bloc is unhappy with changes to the formula that have favoured Ontario.

As a matter of fact, the Bloc actually calculates its list of demands for Quebec at $16 billion — but it will settle for only one-third that amount in the upcoming budget.

“The next budget will be a veritable test for Stephen Harper,” Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said in a statement.

“If the Harper government refuses to do justice to Quebecers, the Bloc will vote against this budget. If this causes a federal election, we’re ready for it.

“As always, the Bloc Quebecois will be standing up (for Quebec).”

The reaction from the Conservatives was less than enthusiastic.

The government’s Quebec lieutenant, Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, twice referred to the opposition party as hypocrites during a scrum with reporters.

“It’s certain (that the $5 billion) is unreasonable. It’s hypocritical,” Paradis said in Montreal.

“The Bloc is always opposing for the sake of opposing. . . Now they’ve drawn a line in the sand to find a pretext to trigger an election. . .

“It’s like they’re playing with Monopoly money and taking people for fools.”

He said the Bloc has a track record of opposing federal budgets, and then criss-crossing Quebec to take credit for any spending measures they might include.

“It’s completely hypocritcal.”

Paradis made his comments after meeting with representatives of Canadian manufacturers and exporters.

He said they discussed what the government calls “tax relief for job creation” — in other words, cuts to corporate taxes, which the Liberals say the country’s finances cannot currently afford.