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LYSIANE GAGNON

Péladeau chairs Hydro-Québec, raises conflict of interest concerns Add to ...

The appointment of Quebecor mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau to the chairmanship of Hydro-Québec is quite troubling.

The largest shareholder of Quebec’s biggest cable and media empire will be heading the power utility that is, by far, the most important public enterprise in the province. This is an unusual concentration of power – and unacceptable, especially in a small society such as Quebec.

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Mr. Péladeau, who is said to be contemplating a political career, recently resigned from his perch as CEO of Quebecor, then offered Premier Pauline Marois his services as chair of Hydro-Québec. He will be vice-chair of Quebecor, and will continue to oversee its media operations as chair of Quebecor Media and TVA Group.

His appointment to Hydro-Québec opens the door to many potential conflicts of interests. Through Sun Media, a subsidiary of Quebecor Media, Mr. Péladeau owns a large chunk of English-Canadian newspapers. In Quebec alone, the empire includes the province’s two largest daily newspapers, a press agency (QMI), the most-watched TV channel (TVA), a quasi-monopolistic cable operator (Vidéotron), a myriad of popular magazines and practically all book publishing and distributing companies.

An additional cause for worry is that Mr. Péladeau is widely known to be a hands-on publisher who often intervenes in the content of his publications.

Considering Quebecor’s importance for making and breaking careers, who would dare criticize Hydro-Québec’s future orientations? Significantly, opposition politicians reacted to Mr. Péladeau’s appointment with unusually lame comments; none of them wanted to risk being trashed in Quebecor’s media.

Will Quebecor journalists feel free to cover Hydro-Québec’s activities with a critical eye? Will Quebecor media receive the bulk of the utility’s huge advertising budget, to the detriment, say, of the CBC? Mr. Péladeau, a long-time foe of the CBC, has often accused the state-subsidized corporation for unfairly competing with the private stations for advertising money.

Even though Mr. Péladeau would, as chair, theoretically only deal with Hydro-Québec’s broad strategies, people who know him say he will intrude on the utility’s operations – which wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself since the utility is notoriously bloated and might benefit from the input of a private-sector businessman. But why Mr. Péladeau?

The answer is in politics. There’s been a series of sweet deals between Mr. Péladeau and Parti Québécois governments. Bernard Landry, as finance minister, helped Québecor obtain the financial support of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec to buy Vidéotron and TVA, at $3.2-billion – an investment the Caisse is still reeling from.

Ms. Marois, as opposition leader, sponsored a controversial private bill that prevented taxpayers from challenging a deal awarded by Quebec City’s mayor to Mr. Péladeau’s pet arena project; this caused an uproar in her caucus, and four MNAs resigned.

Ms. Marois needs the powerful Mr. Péladeau at her side, as she plans for another election campaign and – who knows? – another referendum.

Mr. Péladeau is a strong nationalist who may be a sovereigntist at heart, although he has never explicitly supported the cause. At the relatively young age of 51, and with his fortune made, he’s ready for a political career. Since he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the top job, he would have to lead a political party.

Pierre Karl Péladeau as PQ leader? A mind-boggling yet not totally impossible hypothesis.

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