Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe wants the Harper government to help fund an NHL-calibre hockey rink in Quebec City, throwing the politically explosive arena debate into the pre-budget mix.
Speaking at a caucus meeting in the provincial capital Tuesday, Mr. Duceppe predicted the region's Conservative MPs will pay a price come election time if Ottawa takes a pass on the arena proposal.
Mr. Duceppe noted that Ottawa didn't hesitate to spend $1-billion hosting the G8 and G20 summits in Ontario last summer - a portion of which came from Quebec taxpayers. And in 2001 the federal government contributed $500-million toward Toronto's failed 2008 Olympic bid.
Quebec, Mr. Duceppe said, shouldn't be treated any differently. He demanded the federal government match the province's offer of up to $175-million for the new multi-use facility.
"We are just asking for the same treatment Toronto received in 2001," Mr. Duceppe said in previewing his pre-budget demands for the Quebec City region.
Though he won't unveil the Bloc's complete wish list until Wednesday, Mr. Duceppe said Ottawa must reimburse Quebec for sales tax changes the province made in 1992 or his MPs will vote against the budget.
"The $2.2-billion is a prerequisite to gaining our support," Mr. Duceppe said.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has countered that any federal funding is contingent on Quebec agreeing to fully merge the two sales taxes. He has also indicated that he does not expect negotiations with the province to conclude in time for the budget, which is expected in March.
While Mr. Duceppe also underscored the need for the Conservatives to fund the sports arena, he did not present that demand as an ultimatum.
The minority Harper government will need the support - or abstentions - of at least one of the three opposition parties to survive the March budget vote and avoid an election. The parties are acting as if a campaign has already begun: Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivered a campaign-style speech in Ottawa Tuesday; and on Monday, NDP officials organized a media tour of the party's election headquarters.
The Conservatives have also released election-style attack ads while insisting they do not want a campaign. All of the pre-budgeting positioning is becoming somewhat of an annual ritual under the minority Conservatives, who have relied at various times on each of the three opposition parties to survive budget votes since 2006. However, it remains unclear which of the three might step forward this time.
Mr. Duceppe's focus on the arena proposal comes after The Globe reported that the Harper government is eyeing a $1.25-billion fund created in 2008 for public-private partnerships as a potential source of funding for Quebec City and other cities, like Regina, that want new facilities with pro-sports tenants.
None of this talk is going over well with small-c conservative groups. Both the National Citizens Coalition and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation are urging Canadians to sign petitions opposing any federal funding for pro-sports facilities.
Quebec media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau confirmed this week he was willing to invest "tens of millions" into the project in order to eventually attract an NHL franchise.
Quebec Conservative MP Maxime Bernier issued a statement Tuesday indicating that while he is happy to see the private-sector offer, he still does not think the project should be a priority for federal spending.
"Providing funds to one project in Quebec City would also mean that the government has to fund other projects across the country to be fair to everyone," he said, "which would cost huge sums of money."