Quebec Premier François Legault has a pretty blunt message about what he wants from Justin Trudeau and other federal party leaders in the run-up to the next election: He wants them to bid for his approval.
Mr. Legault went to meet the Prime Minister as the federal cabinet met at a retreat in Sherbrooke and he came out rhyming off a list of things he had sought: Quick approval of federal funding for a Montreal Metro line extension; an additional $160-million for the costs of asylum seekers; compensation for Quebec dairy farmers for trade concessions; approval for Quebec to lower its immigration targets (without losing federal immigration money); and letting Quebec collect federal income taxes.
Then the Premier noted a federal election coming this year, and he wants to hear party leaders say whether they will give him what he wants, and say how much money they would give Quebec for transportation projects.
It’s not exactly an auction for his support, because Mr. Legault said he won’t support any federal party. But he said he will “insist on having answers.” He wants federal party leaders to compete to please him.
Mr. Legault knows he has leverage. He is the biggest swing vote in Confederation.
He is more or less the only premier who isn’t either an ally of Mr. Trudeau or a foe. Ontario’s Doug Ford has tried to rally provincial opposition to the PM. The two New Democrat premiers have worked in alliance with the Liberal Prime Minister, despite their nominal affiliation with federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. But Mr. Legault? He’s a popular, newly elected premier who hasn’t picked a side.
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives once hoped they’d be able to ally themselves with Mr. Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Québec is right-of-centre. Mr. Legault won office in a landslide last October, so hitching the Conservative wagon might help whittle down the Liberals' big lead in Quebec opinion polls, and alter the outcome of the election.
But Mr. Legault isn’t looking to team up. He differs with Mr. Scheer on carbon taxes. He bluntly opposes the Energy East pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick that Mr. Scheer promises to build. The Quebec Premier seems to think he’s better off playing all sides.
Even so, Mr. Scheer has been eager to please him. He pledged a Conservative government would co-operate in building a third bridge across the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City – one of Mr. Legault’s election promises – although there’s no real plan and the bridge would cost untold billions.
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals seem to have a hard time saying no to Mr. Legault, too. Quebec is the only province that collects its own income taxes, and Mr. Legault wants to spare Quebeckers from filing two returns by creating a single form – and have Revenu Québec collect federal taxes, too.
Mr. Trudeau’s ministers pointed out that the Canada Revenue Agency employs 5,000 people in Quebec who process tax returns from across the country, including 1,300 at a processing centre in Shawinigan – but they didn’t flatly say no. But how could Ottawa agree to let Quebec collect federal income taxes in the province, yet still employ Quebeckers to handle tax returns from other provinces?
Mr. Legault’s plan to cut immigration levels by 20 per cent comes with a bonus – Quebec will still get the same amount of federal money for integrating immigrants, which is roughly twice as much for each immigrant as other provinces receive. Mr. Trudeau is thinking about it. And Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he is willing to discuss Mr. Legault’s demand that Ottawa boost the compensation for services for asylum seekers, from $140-million to $300-million.
Some of the Quebec Premier’s demands are for show. He pressed for a specific funding commitment on a Montreal subway-line extension, but the feds insisted they got the formal proposal only a few days ago. Ottawa has already earmarked $7.5-billion over 10 years and backed major transport projects such as a tramway in Quebec City.
But Mr. Legault clearly thinks it’s good politics to be seen making demands. In an election year, he thinks he can make federal politicians compete to meet them.